The National Theater in Prague

The National Theater (Národní divadlo) has a great location right on the Vltava (Moldau) River in the center of Prague at the end of the Legií most (Legion Bridge), just one bridge upstream from the Charles Bridge.

This theater was called the National Theater even before there was a nation to go with it. It was built in the 19th century, when this part of the world belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and was intended from the start to be “the embodiment of the will of the Czech nation for its national identity and independence,” as the theater’s website still proclaims. Above all, this National (Czech) Theater was intended to be grander and more resplendent and more modern than the older German theater (now the Estates Theater), which had been built a century earlier.

National Theater from the Slavic Island (Slovanský ostrov)

The reason it looks so much lighter in the photo is that the older not-yet-cleaned parts are hidden. (Also the evening sunlight brightens it up a bit.)

National Theater from National Street (Národní).

Eleven days after its inauguration in 1881, the National Theater caught fire and was badly damaged, so it was completely re-built (and enlarged) over the next two years and was re-inaugurated in 1883.

The National Theater burning in 1881 (picture on display at the Smetena Museum).

When the enlarged National Theater was re-opened in 1883, it had the most advanced technical equipment of the time, including electric illumination and a steel-frame stage. It was used without any extensive modifications for nearly a century. The next and so far only major overhaul finally took place from 1977 to 1983.

“Narod sobe” above the proscenium arch

The frieze above the proscenium arch displays the slogan Narod sobe, meaning “Nation unto itself”, which I assume expressed the desire of the Czechs to have an independent state, instead of being part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Seating in the National Theater

Foyer at the level of the first balcony

The opera I saw at the National Theater in Prague was none other than Nápoj lásky by Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848), sung in the original Italian with Czech and English surtitles. This is a comic opera, better known in Italian as L’elisir d’amore and in English as The elixir of love, which I have seen numerous times over the past few years in Frankfurt am Main, Vienna, Darmstadt, Gießen, Halle, Heidelberg and Paris — and now in Prague. The word Láska means love in Czech, as I knew because it is painted in large red letters on Prague’s John Lennon Wall. (Láska means “love” and lásky means “of love”.)

Nemorino in this opera is a guy who does everything wrong but gets the girl anyway, which is more or less the story of my life up to now, so I decided that his name would be an appropriate member-name for me while I was active on the now-defunct website VirtualTourist.

Applause after Nápoj lásky (The Elexir of Love) in Prague 2011

An original twist in the Prague production was that the stage director Simone Sandroni introduced a male dancer as the assistant and sidekick of the quack doctor Dulcamara. In the first act there is a fast and funny monologue in which Dulcamara gives a sales pitch to the gullible villagers, praising his wonderful elixir and listing all the ailments he says it will cure — and his sidekick illustrates this by dancing all the ailments that Dulcamara mentions, such as apoplexy, asthma, asphyxia, hysteria, diabetes, earache, scrofula, rickets and liver disease.

Thanking the orchestra

From left to right: dancer Zdenek Horváth, tenor Aleš Briscein as Nemorino, conductor David Švec, soprano Kateřina Kněžíková as Adina, bass Roman Astakhov as Dulcamara, baritone Svatopluk Sem as Belcore and soprano Alžběta Poláčková as Giannetta.

Kateřina Kněžíková applauding the chorus


Poster for the opera L’elisir d’amore in Prague

Here is the National Theater’s poster advertising Nápoj lásky, with Kateřina Kněžíková on the motor scooter and Aleš Briscein behind her. 

Aleš Briscein has sung several times at the Frankfurt Opera in a Czech-language production of The Makropulos Case by Leoš Janáček (1854-1928).

In 2019, Aleš Briscein returned to Frankfurt to sing the title role in a new production of Bedřich Smetana’s Dalibor. He already knew the role in Czech, but for some reason the Frankfurt Opera decided at short notice to perform it in German instead, so he had to learn the German text quite quickly. (He speaks good German, and I tried several times to get him to come as the featured guest to my opera appreciation course Opern-Gespräche, but unfortunately we couldn’t find a date that would have fit both his and our schedules.)

My photos in this post are from 2011. I revised the text in 2021.

See more posts on Prague, Czechia (Czech Republic).
See more posts on the composer Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848).

8 thoughts on “The National Theater in Prague”

  1. If Kněžíková were on a bicycle rather than a motor scooter, then presumably the National Theater poster would be a perfect picture of your younger self.

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