Friday, March 19, 2010


Catharsis is the word, the release of strong emotions. That definition fits the music of Janacek. Yet until the fifties we knew it not. The Big Four were Stravinsky, Bartok, Schonberg and Hindemith. The latter soon slipped out of prominence. And then in 1951 there was a new name to conjure with: Janacek.

A young Australian conductor, Charles Mackerras, studying in Czechoslovakia had been bowled over by the music of this strange composer. Janacek had come to fame late in life but had then written masterpiece after masterpiece until he died in 1928, aged seventy-four. His music is full of woodnotes wild, totally original although not avant-garde technically, awkwardly written, stretch-players and singers, exciting music, somehow life-enhancing; even his darkest and tragic scores bring joy – catharsis in fact. Young Mackerras persuaded the sensitive director of Sadler’s Wells Norman Tucker to première Katia in the Festival of Britain year.

Janacek had arrived. Not liked at first but gradually gaining acceptance, especially in Katia’s revival in 1954 conducted by the great Rafael Kubelik. His first night was one of the most memorable I can remember. It was as if Ostrovsky’s (the librettist) The Storm had been made palpable. Our emotions were well and truly wrung. At the climaxes it felt as though the roof would crack. The Wells Orchestra, not the best in London, played within an inch of its life. One of the cellists said to me afterwards; “what happened? we can’t play as well as that!”.

One of the amazing things about Janacek is how he brings his characters to life, and his ability to compress the events of the drama. You go through heaven and hell, only to find that the act took barely half-an-hour.

Gradually we got to experience other operas by the Moravian: Jenufa, Vixen, House of the Dead, Makropoulos and even Broucek. And now every opera house produces Janacek. We have gained a master composer. On March 15 Katia was given a new production by the English National in the Coliseum. Production, cast and orchestra did the composer proud in this work, one of many inspired by his love of a woman in an affaire that never really happened; he admitted that it was an invention. Kamilla was cool towards him, she was married, didn’t care for music, especially his. There was no consummation, except, thank God, in the music that positively poured out of him.

When we arrived in the theatre, half the stage was already visible: on one side an obtruding wall with one chair in front of it; and we had seen that before recently in Covent Garden’s Tristan. When the curtain opened fully we saw that the wall went on and on, but the rest of the stage was empty, the cast could either stand or squat. The sparseness of David Alden’s production continued, the cast spotlit unencumbered by furniture. As the action continued there was much and cleverly contrived use of shadows.

Alden was clever with his singers too and they excelled: Susan Bickley made much of the ghastly, hypocritical mother-in-law; John Graham-Hall was a convincing wimpish husband, likewise Clive Bayley as Bickley’s admirer. The tenor-lover Stuart Skelton sang impressively and Anne Grevilius was perfect as Varvara. There was only one disappointment: Patricia Racette, soprano from Texas, was a fine performer, good diction, clear lines, presence but the voice was not listener-friendly. Mark Wigglesworth directed superbly and the orchestra played up appropriately.

It was a good evening at the opera. Hearts were wrung.

1 comment:

Gavin Plumley said...

I agree that hearts were wrung, but not by the production... it was the music alone who got me. David Alden had made the choice to rid the central act of any urgent summer-night eroticism, which destabilised the whole. But Wigglesworth and his cast were superb. The Vixen at Covent Garden was appealing musically, but dramatically much stronger.