Edinburgh Festival round-up: Keep it in Czech

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The Independent Culture
YOU WONDER what a Prague audience would make of a British extravaganza like the Last Night of the Proms. Other people's nationalism always seems inspiring but unaccountable, like a best friend's love for some nondescript girl.

Smetana's opera Libuse is a celebration of Czech national fervour. It has no plot to speak of and is largely composed of endless fanfares and marches. Somebody sings a song to a lime tree (sacred in Czech myth) and the piece ends with a series of tableaux vivants, in which the heroine foresees episodes from the national future (fortunately or unfortunately, she overlooks the Soviet tanks of 1968).

Despite the strangeness of it all, this concert performance brought the house down at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre. A troupe of adequate soloists had been imported from the home country - only Eva Urbanov in the title role really impressed - and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra did a grand job under Oliver von Dohnnyi, its suffering not too evident.

The Festival Chorus was a bit bemused, probably having the same kind of struggle with the Czech language that we were all experiencing. But at least it managed to convince us that it spoke for the Czech people in their final cries of "Slva".

It was an odd experience, rousing and yet a bit politically unsettling. Its most important pay-off was to reveal the extraordinary inventive gifts of this composer, a master of big tunes and infectious rhythms.

This was even more obvious in Dalibor, a much better piece, which was given in a brand new staged version by Scottish Opera. It is almost a masterpiece, marred only by a few miscalculations in the scenario and by its atmosphere of buttonholing sincerity. David Pountney avoided cliche in his witty, pretty production; the set designer Ralph Koltai contrived a swivelling and seesawing platform which lifted the singers into the air and delivered them to their next position in the blocking.

Dalibor himself, a boisterous hero from Czech history, was Leo Marian Vodicka, singing with a powerful and tireless tenor, and, withRichard Armstrong conducting spaciously, this was a successful and very impressive venture.

This year's Smetana theme included a piano recital by Jitka Cechova and a concert of chamber music including the nationalistic From the Homeland.

Finally, there were two concerts by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Charles Mackerras, with an opportunity to hear the whole of Ma Vlast.

Some of these six symphonic poems are related to Dalibor and Libuse, but here the political element seemed gentler, more affectionate.

Oddly, the orchestra, which must know this work better than anything on earth, sounded a bit cold; the texture was sometimes rather hollow, the supreme moments somewhat understated. Maybe Sir Charles's return to the original orchestration was responsible.

A rather dry oboe and a warbling horn were accompanied by an undernourished string band. There was a certain tired exuberance but no real grandeur.

No doubt about it; even the best teams play better at home.