Even if you didn’t know a note of Smetana’s opera Dalibor, you’d be able to identify the composer. The bardic harp solo, the brass fanfares and the carousing soldiers seem to step straight from the orchestral pages of Má vlast. The opera is akin to a Czech Fidelio. In 15th-century Prague, the knight Dalibor is imprisoned for avenging his friend’s death, a minstrel. Milada, his victim’s sister, is moved by his plight and, disguised as a boy, enters the jail to secure his release, falling in love with him. Unlike Fidelio, there is no happy ending. The music is endlessly tuneful and is very much a paean to the power of music. Smetana loves a leitmotif and the string theme accompanying the knight Dalibor – remarkably similar to the theme Dvořak later wrote for Vodník in Rusalka – quickly becomes an earworm.
If there’s one conductor you want in this repertoire, it’s Jiří Bělohlávek, and for this performance, recorded in concert last May at the Barbican, he assembled some of the finest singers from Prague’s National Theatre. Richard Samek is a pleasing Dalibor, not the most heroic tenor, but sweet-toned. Soprano Dana Bure≈ová makes a strong impression as Milada, especially in the Act 2 love duet. Alžběta Poláčková nearly steals the performance as Jitka, the peasant girl who rouses support for Dalibor.
The playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra is excellent; you’d almost have to pinch yourself to believe that you weren’t listening to Bělohlávek's Czech Philharmonic. It’s 20 years since Zdeněk Koler’s Supraphon recording, so this splendid new one is most welcome.
However, there is a serious blot on Onyx’s copybook. The booklet contains a synopsis only. For the libretto, you have to venture online and award yourself bonus points if you can actually locate it on their website. It’s eventually to be found in minuscule white font on a grey background. The English text is not placed alongside the Czech, making it next to impossible to follow. I appreciate production costs are high in providing texts in a CD booklet, but in failing to even offer this as a downloadable pdf file, Onyx is serving its customers shabbily.