Renewed by Romance: Smetana's 'The Kiss'

From The Wexford Opera Festival

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The Kiss

3:25
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Vendulka and Lucas i

Vendulka (Pumeza Matshikiza) and Lucas (Peter Berger) are pledged to be married — but their quick tempers may put their love in jeopardy. Clive Barda/Wexford Opera Festival hide caption

itoggle caption Clive Barda/Wexford Opera Festival
Vendulka and Lucas

Vendulka (Pumeza Matshikiza) and Lucas (Peter Berger) are pledged to be married — but their quick tempers may put their love in jeopardy.

Clive Barda/Wexford Opera Festival

The Hit Single

Left alone and confused after Lukas storms out of the house in Act One, Vendulka (soprano Pumeza Matshikiza) sings a thoughtful lullaby to Lukas's young child.

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The B Side

In an emotional trio with Martinka (mezzo-soprano Eliska Weissova) and Matous (bass Bradley Smoak), Vendulka says she was foolish to believe that Lukas would stay faithful to her, while the others try to console her.

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It can sometimes be distracting, or even misleading, to associate a composer's music with particular events in his or her personal life. But at times, the stories linked to a given composition are too compelling to ignore, and can actually give the music added meaning.

The most famous example may be the story about Beethoven, his deafness and the premiere of his Ninth Symphony, in 1824. It comes in any number of versions but in most of them, Beethoven was onstage for the performance, beating time to music he heard only in his mind — and as the symphony concluded, Beethoven was facing away from the audience, still conducting. So someone caught his attention and turned him around, so he could see the cheering crowd, and acknowledge their ovation. If possible, the story makes an already powerful symphony even more inspiring.

As the result of legends such as that one, Beethoven's deafness is one of the most widely-known facts about the personal life of any composer. It's less well known that another great, 19th-century composer, Bedrich Smetana, endured the same fate, about fifty years later.

In the mid-1860's Smetana began an eight-year tenure as principal conductor, and later artistic director, of the Provisional Theater in Prague, the only fully-established Czech opera house. But his years there were often difficult, as he faced frequent opposition, and even ridicule, from those who felt he wasn't up to the job.

Then, in 1874, Smetana began to lose his hearing. He suffered from tinnitus — a buzzing in his ears that eventually blocked out everything else. His right ear was the first to be affected, and later that year he lost all hearing in his left ear as well. Former students took up a collection so Smetana could travel to seek medical treatment but nothing helped. He was forced to resign his position at the theater and at one point wrote that, "I should prefer to be liberated from this life."

Smetana did continue composing, but at first he limited himself strictly to non-vocal music. It was a drastic decision for someone who had devoted much of his career to the theater, and who became known as a founding father of Czech opera.

However, in 1876, he was given a new libretto, called Hubička, or The Kiss. It tells an awkward story of rekindled romance — some might even call it silly. But Smetana, who was dealing with a new and surely frightening time in his life, took the libretto's tale of renewed love — and hope — to heart. In the process, he created an opera with a touching, folk-like charm, and a depth of feeling that somehow goes beyond its outwardly simple story.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us Smetana's The Kiss in a production from the Wexford Opera Festival in Ireland. The stars are soprano Pumeza Matshikiza and tenor Peter Berger as the couple whose prickly romance keeps the story spinning, in a performance led by conductor Jaroslav Kyzlink.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

The Story Of "The Kiss"

Vendulka i

Vendulka (Pumeza Matshikiza) has been in love with Lukas since before his first marriage — but she is just as stubborn as he is. Clive Barda hide caption

itoggle caption Clive Barda
Vendulka

Vendulka (Pumeza Matshikiza) has been in love with Lukas since before his first marriage — but she is just as stubborn as he is.

Clive Barda

Who's Who

Pumeza Matshikiza ..…… Vendulka
Peter Berger ………………… Lukáš
Eliska Weissova ………… Martinka
Jiri Pribyl ………………… Paloucký
Bradley Smoak ……..…….. Matouš
Pavel Baransky ……………. Tomeš
Ekaterina Bakanova ……….. Barče
Robert Gardnier ….. Frontier Guard

Wexford Festival Orchestra
Prague Chamber Choir
Jaroslav Kyzlink, conductor

Smetana's opera was composed in 1876 and premiered that same year at the Provisional Theater in Prague. Following a lively overture, the action begins at the home of Paloucky and his daughter Vendulka — and the two of them quickly get good news from Vendulka's aunt, Martinka.

Years ago, Vendulka fell in love with the young man Lukas. But his parents disapproved, and forced him to marry someone else. Since then, his parents and his wife have died, leaving Lukas alone with a small baby. Martinka has just heard that he's on his way to ask Paloucky's permission to marry Vendulka.

Lukas soon arrives, along with his brother-in-law, Tomes. According to custom, Vendulka leaves the room. Then, with a group of villagers looking on, Tomes announces their business. Paloucky agrees to allow the marriage, and all seems well.

But Lukas senses that Paloucky isn't all that enthusiastic about the whole thing and demands to know why. Reluctantly, Paloucky tells him. He says that both Vendulka and Lukas are quick tempered, stubborn and pigheaded — and that if they get together, there's sure to be trouble.

Lukas dismisses the concerns and Vendulka is brought in for a toast. But when Lukas asks her for a kiss, Vendulka turns away. Thinking she's just shy, the others leave the couple alone. But Vendulka still refuses to kiss Lukas. She says that until they're officially married, it would be an insult to his dead wife. Sure enough, there's an argument, and when Paloucky hears them going at it, he's quick to say, "I told you so."

Before long, Lukas stomps off and Martinka returns, saying she saw Lukas on his way to the local tavern. Naturally, Vendulka is upset. So Martinka changes the subject. She's been known to make a little money on the side by helping a group of smugglers, and invites Vendulka to help out with their next mission. Vendulka refuses. Left alone, she sings a lullaby to Lukas's child. Eventually, she falls asleep by the crib.

Later that night, she's awakened by a ruckus outside. Lukas is back from the pub, drunk, and with four young women in tow. He says that if Vendulka won't kiss him, he can surely find his kisses somewhere else. The scene rouses the villagers, and Vendulka is humiliated. As the act ends, she runs off to find Martinka. Maybe smuggling isn't such a bad idea after all.

ACT TWO begins deep in the forest, where we meet the band of smugglers, along with their leader, Matous. They all slip into the woods when Lukas appears. He's wracked with guilt and grief stricken — convinced that he's lost Vendulka forever. But Tomes, who followed him into the forest, says that if Lukas apologizes to Vendulka, she'll most likely forgive him. They go off, and the smugglers return, having overheard the whole scene.

The smugglers then meet up with Martinka, who has brought Vendulka along. Matous gives the women a package to smuggle into town. And he listens while Vendulka longs to be back with Lukas. So when the women leave, Matous goes off to find Lukas, and tell him that a sincere apology might just do the trick.

On their way home, Martinka and Vendulka run into a suspicious frontier guard. It's a close call, but the illegal package is hidden in a pear basket and the guard is more interested in grabbing a few tasty pears than looking for contraband.

The scene changes to Martinka's cottage in the woods, and the maidservant Barce appears. She's just run into Matous, who told her about his encounter with the repentant Lukas, and Barce wants to give Martinka the news.

After a while, the entire village approaches the cottage, along with Matous and Lukas. Paloucky says he's willing to forgive Lukas for his crass behavior and allow the wedding to proceed. When Vendulka and Martinka finally arrive, Vendulka is overjoyed to see Lukas. But then the two start to argue — again! This time Vendulka wants a kiss, and Lukas refuses. He says he won't do it until she accepts his apology, and forgives him. She does, and the two embrace as the opera ends.

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