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The Sunday Opera: Antonin Dvorak's "Vanda"

A woodcut image of Vanda stands before the castle at Wawel where most of this opera takes place.

If one were to hear the name Antonin Dvorak combined with opera, it’s probable that the first thing to come to mind would be “Rusalka.” However, on this week’s Sunday Opera (5/26 3:00 p.m.), we’re going to hear one of the other nine operas he wrote: “Vanda,” which tells the story of the 8th century Polish warrior princess who saved her country. 

After premiering in 1876 to great acclaim, the opera only ran for four more performances and, surprisingly, disappeared. Dvorak wrote it between the composition of his “Slavonic Dances” and “Slavonic Rhapsodies” when he felt the need to write more nationalistic music. The story is based on the life and death of Vanda, but because Dvorak wanted to write a grand five-act opera in the style of Meyerbeer, the libretto includes some superfluous material like a witch, a conjuring session, and a doomed love interest in the form of a devout Polish knight of humble birth. 

Vanda (Olga Romanko) has become the queen of Poland after Her brother was banished for killing her other brother. She doubts her abilities, but she’s bolstered by her childhood friend and would be lover, the knight Slavoj (Peter Straka) and sister Bozena (Irina Tchistjakova). According to the high priest (Pavel Daniluk), Vanda must marry, but her husband must be of noble birth. Three suitors are brought to court, but none of them can fulfill any of the three challenges they must complete: shooting an arrow with a bow, throwing a threshing machine over a tree bough, or piercing a shield with a spear. Slavoj, however, steps in and does all three, but he is rebuffed by the priest because he is of low birth. 

After the competition, another suitor arrives. Roderich (Ivan Kusnjer) is a German Prince who has been pursuing Vanda even before her father died, but she once again turns him down. Roderich begins to threaten Vanda, but Slavoj steps in and defeats him. Vanda stops Slavoj from killing Roderich which sets up the future battle where Roderich tries to take Poland by force with the help of the witch Homena (Michelle Breedt). 

During the battle, Slavoj proves his prowess and Vanda kills Roderich, but not before promising the gods that she would sacrifice herself if she could be victorious which she does against the pleadings of Bozena and Slavoj by throwing herself into the Vistula River. 

In this recording, Gerd Albrecht conducts the Prague Chamber Choir, the West German Radio Chorus – Koln, and the West German Symphony Orchestra – Koln. 

After the opera, please stay tuned for more music of Dvorak including his Symphony No. 3, one of his six symphonic poems, this one “The Noon Witch,” and the very familiar and popular “Humoresque.”

Michael is program host and host of the WWFM Sunday Opera, Sundays at 3 pm, and co-host of The Dress Circle, Sundays at 7 pm.
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