Vanda, Op. 25, B55
Burghauser catalogue number
Date of composition
9 August – 22 December 1875 (revisions: 1879–1880, 1883 and 1900–1901)
Premiere - date and place
17 April 1876, Prague
Marie Sittová (Vanda), Ema Maislerová (Božena), Betty Fibichová (Homena), Antonín Vávra (Slavoj), Josef Lev (Roderich), Karel Čech (High Priest), Leopold Stopnický (Lumír), Josef Šmaha (Velislav), Josef Chramosta (Všerad), Ferdinand Koubek (Vitomír), Jan Šára (Messenger), Petr Doubravský (Herold), Provisional Theatre Orchestra and Choir, conductor Adolf Čech, director Edmund Chvalovský
not yet published
Author of the libretto
Václav Beneš Šumavský and František Zákrejs after Julian Surzycki
1 piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, bass drum, harp, violins, violas, cellos, double basses + mixed choir + soloists
Parts / movements
1st act: A Plain in Front of Wawel Castle
2nd act: The Same Scene
3rd act: Barren Rocks, a Cave in the Background
4th act: The Interior of a Pagan Temple
5th act: A Rampart in Front of Wawel
Vanda, Krak's daughter – soprano
Božena, her sister – mezzo-soprano
Slavoj, knight of Krakov – tenor
High Priest – bass
Lumír, singer of Krakov – baritone
Homena, witch – mezzo-soprano
Roderich, German prince – baritone
Messenger – tenor
Velislav, Všerad a Vitomír, soldiers, noblemen and chieftains, maidens at Vanda's court, priests and priestess, knights
approx. 2 hr. 40 min.
The mid-1870s was an extremely productive period in Dvořák’s musical career, all the more so since, at the beginning of 1875, the composer managed to acquire a state scholarship which enabled him to devote more time to his composition work. Immediately after the premiere of King and Collier, Dvořák decided to write an opera to a libretto penned by František Zákrejs. The heroine of the tale is the fabled princess Vanda (Wanda), something of a Polish counterpart to the Czech Libuše. The idea to treat a story from Polish mythology was motivated by sympathies for the period Panslavic ideal; the explicit expression of the contrast between Slavism and Germanism then fully corresponded with the socio-political atmosphere of the era. The choice of libretto may also have been influenced by the composer’s decision, after his comic operas, to try his hand at writing a serious, tragic work. Writer František Zákrejs was, in fact, one of three authors connected with the Vanda libretto, while their precise share in the final text is unknown. The author of the original story written in Polish was Warsaw professor Julian Surzycki, whose text was translated into Czech by Václav Beneš Šumavský. Zákrejs, in collaboration with the composer, then put together a final libretto.
Dvořák’s attitude towards the text unfortunately merely appeared to stem from his appreciation for its Slavic theme, without his taking into account its quality as literature. The libretto lacks dramatic character, it has an obsolete diction, in places verging on parody, and the narrative is unnecessarily drawn out into five acts, thus it loses momentum. The standard of the musical setting far surpasses that of the literary text on which it is based. Dvořák’s fifth opera could be seen as a monumental historical tableau whose majestic pathos and open-handed choruses and ensemble scenes are reminiscent of another of the composer’s works, the oratorio Saint Ludmila. The plot is divided into five relatively short acts, thus the total duration of the opera does not exceed the length common for three-act operas. The overall conception of the work is typical for Dvořák – each act represents a continual flow of music, however, broken up into individual solo, choral and ensemble “numbers”. In keeping with the theme, the composer incorporated Slav traits into his score – even Polish, as in the case of the mazurka in Act Three. The musical fabric also betrays certain leitmotifs, although these are not treated with such consistency as they are later on in Rusalka. In two places in the score Dvořák employs motivic elements from earlier works: for Vanda’s opening aria “I was happy, tranquil and cheerful”, he draws on the theme of the tenth song from the cycle Cypresses, and for Vanda’s and Slavoj’s duet he uses the music of Harald’s and Alvina’s duet from his first opera Alfred. While Vanda is not one of Dvořák’s masterpieces, and its stage depiction requires a faster moving and more dramatic plot, it is a mature work which, during its strongest moments, bears comparison with the best that Dvořák produced for the opera stage.
The spring of 1876 saw the culmination of disputes (probably more of a political, rather than artistic, nature) which had soured the atmosphere within the management of Prague’s Provisional Theatre. The existing director, Jan Nepomuk Maýr, was forced to resign and the institution was subsequently taken over by what was known as the Young Czech Administration, which had given itself the task of “shifting the theatre in a direction that is purely artistic, in the spirit of Czechness”. As its first operatic premiere, the new theatre management chose Dvořák’s recently completed opera Vanda. The memoirs of conductor Adolf Čech describe the difficulties associated with the rehearsals for a work which required costly stage equipment to create the scenery that was needed, and also a large orchestra and choir:
“Vanda requires a vast apparatus of stage equipment, orchestral players and chorus singers and, at that time, we simply did not have it at our disposal. During the very first run-through, it transpired that Act Three, set in the witch Homena’s cave, necessitated a major stage set to rival the Brocken from Goethe’s Faust; the whole thing resembled a veritable parody on our little stage. We were obliged to leave out Act Three in the end and its storyline had to be narrated as recitatives by several individuals appearing in Act Four!”
Despite all the obstacles and drastic cuts affecting the very essence of the work, the premiere was a resounding success with both the public and the critics, and reinforced Dvořák’s position on the domestic music scene. The daily Narodní listy wrote the following:
“The house was packed to the rafters and, despite the tropical heat, the audience was wonderfully animated and stayed in their seats right to the end of the performance. It was an outright success. Immediately after Act One the composer was called out several times to take a bow and, thereafter, each act was followed by boisterous applause. [...] His latest opera Vanda demonstrates his creative force of spirit and gives a most excellent testimony of his true vocation in the dramatic profession.”
In the year of the premiere, the opera was performed at the Provisional Theatre four times, but only once during the following season. In 1879 the Viennese Hofoper expressed an interest in staging the work, and this on the recommendation of Johannes Brahms. Dvořák mentioned the fact in a letter to his friend Alois Göbl: “I was also approached by Jauner, the director of the Hofoper, who asked me to consider the possibility of staging Vanda; he said he would come to Prague and that he would like to bring the opera to the Hofoper. [...] My opera in Vienna, eh? Imagine that!”. Despite the fact that negotiations were on course, and that the Viennese press announced Vanda as one of the new operas for the forthcoming season, the project was abandoned. The reason was probably the change to the theatre’s management who may have decided to review the repertoire. Vanda was performed again at the Provisional Theatre in 1880 (only four performances); this was a new production with a new overture which Dvořák had written in the meantime (this overture was occasionally performed later on as an independent concert piece).
When preparations went ahead in 1883 for the re-opening of Prague’s National Theatre, the composer was hoping to be able to stage his opera on a larger stage with adequate stage sets. To this end he even made substantial revisions to the score, nevertheless, the National Theatre did not present Vanda that year, nor in the first few years after the opening, and not even in 1901, when director František Adolf Šubert put together a whole series of the composer’s operas to mark his sixtieth birthday. All the same, a new production of Vanda seemed almost certain; a report even appeared in Dalibor stating that “the National Theatre is already rehearsing Dvořák’s Vanda, to be included in a cycle of operas which it plans to stage to mark the Maestro’s 60th birthday, which falls at the beginning of September”; nonetheless, these plans came to nothing. Leading music critic and aesthetician Otakar Hostinský commented at the time: “Vanda contains so many intriguing and impressive qualities, and it is so important in our quest to understand Dvořák’s development in the dramatic genre, that we regret its disappearance from the repertoire and its exclusion from the Dvořák series.” To this day it is not clear why the opera did not go ahead as planned. Vanda never appeared on stage again during the composer’s lifetime.
After Dvořák’s death, the opera reappeared for the first time in Plzeň in 1925; this was, at the same time, the only stage production of the work outside Prague. The National Theatre did not present Vanda until 1929, a move instigated by Otakar Ostrčil to mark the 25th anniversary of the composer’s death; even then there were only two repeat performances (three in total). A long silence followed, and it was sixty-two years before Vanda saw its only concert performance (20. 5. 1991) at what was then the Smetana Theatre in Prague (today the State Opera). In recent years conductor Gerd Albrecht has tried to make this unjustly neglected opera more “visible”: in 1999, as part of an independent series of his Dvořák opera recordings for Orfeo publishers, he made the most complete recording of this opera so far (Dvořák’s revised version from 1883). He followed up this endeavour in 2003 with a concert performance of Vanda in Amsterdam and, shortly afterwards, to mark the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death, he also conducted the first proper staging of the work at Prague’s National Theatre, 75 years after Ostrčil’s production.
the story is set in Krakow in pagan times
Prince Krak has died and has bequeathed the rule of his country to his daughter Vanda. Vanda does not have confidence in herself and requests the help of the knight Slavoj. German Prince Roderich unexpectedly asks for Vanda’s hand in marriage so that he may unite both empires. Vanda tells him it is up to the counsel whether she is to wed a man who speaks a foreign tongue and believes in a foreign god. Meanwhile, Vanda is declared queen and the people cheer for their new sovereign.
The counsel decrees that three chieftains should compete for Vanda’s hand. None of them, however, is able to fulfil the difficult tasks assigned to them. Then Slavoj requests permission to enter the contest, even though he is neither a chieftain nor a nobleman. Despite the High Priest’s protests, the people consent, and Slavoj wins. At that moment, Prince Roderich comes for Vanda and throws insults at Slavoj for his humble origins. Slavoj challenges Roderich to a duel and the latter capitulates.
Vanda and Slavoj meet in front of Černoboh cave to decide upon the future of the country. They have to hide when they see Roderich approaching, who has come in search of the witch Homena. He needs the witch to help him take possession of Vanda, even using violence, if necessary. Then Slavoj comes out of his hiding place, he calls his knights; Roderich must be punished. But Vanda lets him go to ensure peace and stability in the land.
Roderich repays Vanda’s benevolence by invading her country with his forces. Vanda asks the gods for help and utters a promise that she will sacrifice her own life for victory. Her pleas are heard, Roderich falls and his army is defeated.
Even though everyone begs their queen to pacify the gods by other means, and Slavoj offers to sacrifice himself instead of Vanda, she is determined to keep her word and throws herself into the Vistula.