“My Dear Czech Nation Shall Not Perish:” Lost Recording of a Czech Opera In the Throes of World War II

Marie Podvalová as queen Libuše in 1953

This year, Supraphon released a long-lost recording from a performance of Smetana’s Libuše, an opera which tells the mythical story of a Bohemian clairvoyant queen, written to be performed during national holidays. The legendary Czech conductor Václav Talich performed the opera on May 29th 1939 at Prague’s National Theater in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. Fragments from Act III of this performance, which include Libuše’s famous prophecy, were discovered in the estate of the late soprano Marie Podvalová. The recording captures the penultimate performance of this opera during the Nazi occupation, before further performances were strictly forbidden and the broadcast recording all but destroyed a few years later. In this touching rendition, the evening ends with the audience spontaneously singing the Czech national anthem.

A recording of Václav Talich’s rendition of Smetana’s Má vlast (My Country) on June 5th 1939 with the Czech Philharmonic at the National Theater in Prague received considerable attention internationally. Released by Supraphon in 2011, it won the Gramophone Special Historic Award in 2012. At the time, it seemed Talich’s discography was complete. The estate of soprano Marie Podvalová however, yielded another unique find. Exactly one week before conducting Má vlast, Talich conducted the opera Libuše, also at the National theater.

Legendary Czech conductor Václav Talich

A recording of parts of Talich’s rendition of Libuše in 1939 survive only thanks to soprano Marie Podvalová, who asked for copies of certain passages for her private collection before the complete recording had to be destroyed by the Czech Radio in 1941. It took six years, from 2014 to 2019, to reconstruct the recording from the fragile foils on which they were saved. Besides capturing Marie Podvalová’s historic debut, at the age of 28, in a role she would be known for throughout her career, this new release is Václav Talich’s only operatic recording and the oldest surviving opera broadcast from the National Theater. It is also a rare opportunity to hear the legendary Czech bass Vilém Zítek (in the role of Chrudoš), who had resisted having his voice recorded for most of his career. On the newly-released CD, the restored fragments from Act III are complemented by Talich’s 1940 recording of the overture with the Czech Philharmonic for His Master’s Voice.

Marie Podvalová sings Libuše’s prophesy at the Czech National Theater under the baton of Otakar Jeremiáš (early 1940s)

Libuše’s final scene, in which the clairvoyant monarch predicts the historic triumphs of the Czech people and includes the famous line “my dear Czech nation shall not perish, it shall triumph over all terrors” (“Můj drahý národ český neskoná, on všechny hrůzy slavně překoná”) must have sounded, in 1939, like a bold declaration of national pride. The long and tempestuous applause, during which the audience spontaneously bursts into the Czech national anthem, provide this new release with a unique and touching energy.

The Supraphon label made a short documentary (subtitled in English) about this historic performance and the restoration of the recording, which you may watch below:

The recording, which was released on May 22nd, 2020, can be purchased here, where you can also listen to excerpts.
You can access the original Czech article here.

4 Comments

  1. Interesting, next time you will come to Czech republic I will show you the house in Beroun where conductor Vaclav Talich lived.

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