Janáček, Leoš


VixenLeoš Janáček - The Cunning Little Vixen

Glyndebourne 2012 | Vladimir Jurowski, Melly Still, Sergei Leiferkus, Lucy Crowe, Emma Bell, Mischa Schelomianski, William Dazeley, Jean Rigby, Adrian Thompson, Colin Judson, Sarah Pring | Opus Arte

With its charming depiction of life and nature, with the animals of the forest featuring throughout as characters, it’s common to see Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen staged like a pantomime and aimed at a younger audience, even though some of the behaviour of the creatures is indeed quite frankly “animalistic”. The opera is not of course essentially about animals but about life and, indeed, the facts of life, so it’s interesting to see the opera treated with a more mature outlook for the 2012 production at Glyndebourne. It may perhaps lose a little bit of its innocent charm in the process, but there’s more than enough gained from the usual fine attention that Glyndebourne give to the production - and the opera - as a complete package.

Rather than having children and older performers dressed in the usual colourful animal suits, the creatures of the forest are still characterised as animals here, but without the full make-up. Instead they carry only an object by which they can be identified, the idea seeming to be to remind us that their animal behaviour isn’t all that different from humans. A man holds an udder in his hand for the forester to milk, the dog, Lapák, holds a snake-like tail an shakes it about, the cockerel waves his dangly bits proudly and menacingly for the lady hens who are all in frilly lace underwear. As for the vixen, she’s dressed like a gypsy girl, in a woolly jumper with a hooped pattern, flowing gypsy skirt, trilby hat and scarf, with a shaggy mane of red hair, carrying a bushy tail and a hunter’s knife instead of sharp teeth. The characterisation is a bit of a half-way house and doesn’t always allow the anthromorphic elements to come fully to life, but combined with other elements of the stage setting, it does work to express the themes on a literal level as well figuratively.

The set itself places man both within this natural world and at the same time outside it, showing nature to be bold and colourful, while the indoors scenes - kept in the Janacek’s period and Moravian setting - are drab by comparison. Two features however dominate Tom Pye’s set designs that serve to bring those two different worlds together. One is a large winding path rising vertically at the back of the stage which at one time can be a path and at other times a burrow. It seems a little over-elaborate, requiring the use of stand-ins on harnesses, but it works. The other more significant feature however is a huge tree made up of a swirl of planks that alone functions as the strongest image and is at the centre of the stage for most of the production. It’s the one enduring constant that stands there throughout the seasons and the passing of generations, serving as a home for the birds, as a place to protect Forester from the sun while he sleeps, it’s where Sharp Ears the vixen is tied-up on the farm and it’s her shelter and home for her family later, made over into a den after the old badger has been driven out. Eventually, towards the end, even little saplings appear around the tree as well.

The strongest element of the production however, and the one that most eloquently describes the natural world it depicts, is undoubtedly Janáček’s music itself, which is wonderfully played by the London Philharmonic under Vladimir Jurowski. This gorgeous music - for me the most evocative and beautiful of all Janáček’s work - is almost achingly beautiful in its apparently simple rhythms. Not only does it flow however to Janáček’s familiar speech patterns and folk-like textures, but it’s also almost onomatopoeic in its capturing of the sounds, the rhythm and the flow of life, the passing of time and the eternal timelessness of nature. In its melodies also however it seems to mingle joy and sadness, beauty and cruelty, the spontaneity of living and the wisdom of ages. It’s undoubtedly this element that everything else must respond to in a production of The Cunning Little Vixen and, with only a few minor concerns, Melly Still’s direction - and particularly the beautiful choreography of the dancers - seems to respond to the music and its meaning as does the exceptionally fine performance of the orchestra conducted by Jurowski.

If there’s any one concern it’s a minor one about the pacing. Not the tempo. The rhythm and flow feel marvellous, but everything seems to fly past so quickly as if in a haste to get to the next scene, and it’s all over before you knew it. A bit like life I suppose - which may have been the intention. It’s true that The Cunning Little Vixen is not a long work and Janáček deliberately leaves no time for sentimentality about the natural order of things passing on and making way for renewal, but at the same time there seems to be little time in this production for you to connect with some of the most beautiful key moments and let them sink in. There may even be a few trims to the score to indeed prevent the audience from dwelling too long on events that ultimately are just another stage in the greater scheme of things, to be played out continually in the cycle of life.

This is particularly evident in the singing, which is fine throughout but tends to keep the singers - and consequently the audience - a little step removed from the characters, preventing them from really springing into life. Lucy Crowe however handles the complex Czech language requirements with its flow of consonants well, maintaining the necessary rhythm while performing fox-like moves very impressively. Emma Bell too sang beautifully and fitted well into the role of Golden Mane. There is perhaps rather more care given to the human figures, the Forester (Sergei Leiferkus) and his colleagues, and their disillusionment or sense of detachment with the true nature of the world - too caught up in themselves to see their part in the greater scheme of things. If the intention is to restore the human element back into a work where there can be too much emphasis placed on the cute antics of the animals, Melly Still’s production certainly manages that, and in conjunction with the overall tone of the production it works well, revealing all the magnificent beauty of one of the finest works in all opera, even if it loses just a little bit of its innocent charm in the process.

The production comes across reasonably well on the Blu-ray release. Some of the darker scenes have some post-production brightening applied, which creates a ringing halo around figures, but this isn’t evident in more than one or two scenes. Otherwise, the full colourful quality of the work is evident. The audio tracks are the usual PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. Extras include a Cast Gallery and a 22-minute Making Of featurette, with interviews covering the concept, the music and the production design with some rehearsal footage. The BD is all-region, BD25 (for a 97 minute opera), with subtitles in English, French, German and Korean.

Leoš Janáček - Věc Makropulos

La Fenice di Venezia, 2013 | Gabriele Ferro, Robert Carsen, Ángeles Blancas Gulín, Ladislav Elgr, Andreas Jäggi, Enric Martínez-Castignani, Martin Bárta, Enrico Casari, Guy De Mey, Leonardo Cortellazzi, Judita Nagyová, Leona Pelešková | Teatro La Fenice, Venice, 15 March 2013

Although it would be surpassed by the musical progression in From the House of the Dead, Leoš Janáček at the time considered Věc Makropulos (The Makropolus Case, 1926) as his greatest work to date. In many ways, Věc Makropulos is the one where many of the themes in Janáček’s previous works come together. The contemplation on the passing of time, the renewal of life, death as a necessary and intrinsic part of existence are perhaps at their most beautiful in The Cunning Little Vixen, while other aspects of living in difficult circumstances, making choices and dealing with adversity in a wider social context can be found in Jenůfa and in Katya Kabanova. There is something beautifully expressive in the freshness of those earlier works, but the sophisticated arrangements of Věc Makropulos are much more ambitious without losing any of the concision of expression that is so characteristic of the composer.

That concision reduces some of the social context found in the original 1922 play of the same name by the celebrated Czech science-fiction author Karol Capek (the man credited with inventing the term “robot”), but Janáček’s focus - as indicated by letters he wrote at the time - was very much on the question of the question of eternal youth as a personal burden on its main character Emilia Marty or Elina Makropulos as she was originally known. Very little of socialist leanings of Vitek remain in the opera, the lawyer’s clerk in the original work believing it would earn man the right to elevate himself and the condition of humanity, while his employer Kolenatý can only see the destruction of social institutions that are based on life being short. Who for example would want to be married to the same person for 300 years? Janáček’s own libretto however reworks the story slightly to consider the question of life only having meaning when it has an end.

Canadian director Robert Carsen’s designs for the La Fenice production of Věc Makropulos in Venice then is fairly straightforward and traditional in its 1920s period setting, but he does find something interesting to play with in the theatrical nature of Emilia Marty being an opera singer. A parallel on the question of identity is drawn immediately in the repetitions of the theme in the Overture (the only overture written for any Janáček opera), where a series of rapid backstage costume changes reflect the fact of Emilia Marty has played many opera roles and at the same time taken on many identities in her 327 years of existence. Following in such quick succession, you also get the sense of her weariness of living such a life for such a long time.

Opera also plays a major part in the backstage setting of Act II, Carson choosing Puccini’s near contemporary Turandot as the opera backdrop, a choice that works well with the unfeeling ice-queen personality that Emilia has developed over the years, showing little concern for the lives or deaths of other lesser beings. Elsewhere however, Carsen’s staging is fairly traditional and the sets by Radu Boruzescu are not as stylised or high-concept as you would more often find with Carsen’s productions. It many not be as visually impressive either, but judging by how strong his presentation of the characters is and the overall success of the production, it is however clearly a thoughtful and appropriate reading of the work.

What is rather more crucial in determining the success of a production of Věc Makropulos - or indeed any Janáček opera - is in how it captures the rhythm of the music, the flow of the singing and the whole essence of life that lies within it. Conducted by Gabriele Ferro, that was achieved marvellously by the orchestra of La Fenice, the score performed with verve and drive, vividly describing the wonderful details in the use of instruments that make the work so unique and expressive. No less important to the rhythmic flow are the inflections of the Czech voice and the singing was strong across all the main roles here. Spanish soprano Ángeles Blancas Gulín sang Emilia Marty wonderfully with the necessary command, particularly for the way that the diva role was played in this production, her death on the stage, alone under the spotlight, making the work all the more poignant.

DeadLeoš Janáček - From the House of the Dead

Aix-en-Provence, 2007 | Pierre Boulez, Patrice Chéreau, Olaf Bär, Eric Stokloßa, Steron Margita, John Mark Ainsley, Jan Galla, Peter Hoare, Gerd Srochowski | Deutsche Grammophon

Based on Dostoevsky’s novel Memoirs from the House of the Dead, which recounts many of the author’s own experiences as a prisoner in a Siberian Prison Camp, Janáček’s final opera, first performed in 1930, is inevitably a bleak affair. But like the original work that it is based on, the point of showing such misery and injustice is to highlight all the more the uplifting moments of human compassion that endures there which is never fully extinguished. That’s difficult to bring out of a group of hardened men, many of whom indeed are criminals and murderers, but it’s a work that is all the stronger for meeting this challenge, and conducted by Pierre Boulez and directed for the stage by Patrice Chéreau (the team behind the famous Centenary Wagner Ring Cycle), those qualities are superbly and sympatherically elicited from the singing, the staging and Janáček’s remarkable composition.

Of all Janáček’s work, From the House of the Dead is one that is rarely performed, principally because its difficult subject and its treatment lack a conventional narrative structure or resolution, to such an extent that the opera was considered incomplete at the time of the composer’s death. Even the orchestration itself is sparse, as if not fully scored, but Janáček’s music – so associated with rhythms of speech – has evolved here, finding harsh new sounds to suit its subject, using percussion, blocks, rattling chains and tolling bells, and integrating them into the fabic of a powerful score than needs no further elaboration. The dark tone that Janáček explores here points towards Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and, particularly in its prison setting, Weinberg’s recently rediscovered The Passenger.

Patrice Chéreau’s staging and direction doesn’t so much emphasise the dark setting, as fully envision what is already there in the score and the libretto. Considering Chéreau’s background, it’s entirely theatrical in this respect, the stark high grey walls that enclose the men in Act 1, the improvised stage in Act 2 and the hospital ward of Act 3, the blue-grey-brown tones all perfectly geared towards literal as well as metaphorical representation of the prison. Chéreau doesn’t point towards any specific cultural or political reading, but focuses on the human drama, on the nature of men, the stories they tell each other and the personalities that they reveal. By extension, this also sheds light on the deeper human behaviours that the situation brings out – the basic human needs for equality and freedom, the urge to communicate, the need for a sense of worth, respect and attention that, when denied, can be expressed in assertion of authority and in violent behaviour.

Dead

If the direction does everything to give the best possible staging for the opera and its themes – from the sense of movement and positioning of figures right through to the superb lighting of the stage – everything about the actual performance of this Aix-en-Provence production of From the House of the Dead is likewise as good as it could be. Pierre Boulez conducts the Mahler Chamber Orchestra through a magnificent performance of a remarkable score (from Sir Charles Mackerras and John Tyrell’s critical edition) that flawlessly captures tone, character and nuance for the situation as well as the characters. The singing is of an exceptionally high standard, not just for the actual singing, but the acting performances that Chéreau teases out of each member of the cast. This is as good a performance as you could possibly hope for of this particular opera.

On DVD, the performance at Aix comes across quite well. The NTSC resolution isn’t the best, and it can look a little blurry in movement, with hand-held camera inserts being used as an extra dimension to the live performance – but it fully captures the sense of the staging. The audio mixes in LPCM stereo and DTS 5.1 are wonderful, both of them exhibiting an impressive level of detail and a lovely tone. The DVD also has a 48-minute Making Of featurette, filmed entirely behind-the-scenes, following the rehearsals without any formal interviews.

JenufaLeoš Janáček - Jenůfa

Teatro Real, Madrid, 2009 | Ivor Bolton, Stéphane Braunschweig, Amanda Roocroft, Miroslav Dvorský, Nikolai Schukoff, Deborah Polaski, Mette Ejsing, Marta Ubieta, Károly Szemerédy, Miguel Sola, Marta Mathéu, María José Suárez | Opus Arte

One of the composer’s earliest works, from 1904, Janáček’s Jenůfa is a wonderful piece of work with a melodramatic but gritty story that has its roots in realism and traditional popular folklore, and it has music to match with a lush sweep of Wagnerian Romanticism, the punch of Slavic dance arrangements and a modern Strauss-like sensibility that ties the nature of the characters and their actions to identifiable but complex modern musical and speech tone patterns developed by Janácek. Unfortunately, this particular performance, recorded at the Teatro Real de Madrid in 2009, is for the most part not the most impressive means of experiencing one of the greatest operas of the early twentieth century.

It’s difficult from this production to grasp any sense of time, location or community sensibility that is so important in identifying the nature of Jenůfa’s dilemma. Jenůfa is in love with Števa and engaged to be married to him, despite his half-brother Laca being more devoted to the young woman, and perhaps a better match. When her stepmother Kostelnička publically delays the marriage until Števa gets his act together, she is unaware that Jenůfa is pregnant. The secret birth of a baby outside wedlock makes the marriage to Števa and the fate of Jenůfa more complicated to arrange, as does the scar on the young woman’s face accidentally left there by the jealous Laca, and despair over the turn of events drives Kostelnička to take matters into her own hands.

Although it does seem to improve considerably by the time we reach the powerful and climactic third act, the whole sense of fluidity and rhythm of the work and the all-important speech tones seem to be lost in the uneven tempo of Ivor Bolton’s conducting. It seems to limp from one scene to the next somewhat disjointedly, and it’s not until quite late in the performance that the conductor manages to bring the precision and dramatic tone required out of the orchestra. The staging by Stéphane Braunschweig is also inadequate and it’s not so much that the set is minimalist – each scene consisting of bare walls and one significant object in a spotlight to indicate location – as that there is little here to support mood or the dramatic action. Up until the final act, it’s a fairly anonymous staging, dark, with stark lighting on the characters, that doesn’t have the requisite impact and fails to draw the viewer into what is very much a story related to the community, as well as an interior journey.

The singing is good in all the principal roles, if not outstanding. There’s nothing here, for example, to create the kind of impression or investment in the roles that Elisabeth Söderström and Eva Randová achieve in their incredibly passionate and chilling renditions of Jenůfa and Kostelnička for the classic Charles Mackerras recording of this opera (although it is perhaps unfair to expect any live performance to match this). Amanda Roocroft however is a fine Jenůfa and Deborah Polaski an excellent Kostelnička, both of them growing into the roles (or perhaps it just took me a while to acclimatise to them), gathering intensity as the opera reaches the third act. Nikolai Schukoff and Miroslav Dvorský as rival half-brothers Števa and Laca, also give fine performances. None of them however are helped by the inadequacy of the staging or by the mediocre playing of the orchestra.

Something close to the real impact of the work is achieved by the time we get to the remarkably beautiful and poignant duet at the conclusion of the opera, but otherwise, this production succeeds only as far as making Jenůfa sound like an ordinary opera, when it’s really a work that has so much more to offer and deserves a lot better than this in terms of staging and performance. It’s not helped at all by the inadequate video transfer on the Blu-ray. The extremely dark stage (as is often the case in Teatro Real productions in my experience) scarcely looks better than standard-definition, with little detail and a highly contrasted image that exhibits lighting fluctuation and exposure variations. The image is somewhat juddery, and this isn’t helped by jerky camera work. The disc contains only a Cast and Synopsis, but there is a more detailed examination of how the music works alongside the drama in the accompanying booklet.

KabanovaLeos Janáček - Katia Kabanova

Teatro Real de Madrid, December 2008 | Jiri Belohlavek, Robert Carsen, Karita Mattila, Oleq Bryjak, Miroslav Dvorsky, Dalia Schaechter, Guy De Mey, Gordon Gietz, Natascha Petrinsky, Marco Moncloa, Itxaro Mentxaka, María José Suárez | FRA Productions

I liked Robert Carsen’s stage design for the NY Met production of Eugene Onegin where he employed a large three-sided “light-box” with minimal props, but made use of the lighting and autumnal colours to perfectly complement the tone of Tchaikovsky’s dramatic and emotionally turbulent opera. Carsen’s Brechtian design for Katia Kabanova at Madrid’s Teatro Real in 2008 is similarly austere and emotionally resonant, and again it seems to me to be perfectly complementary for an opera whose storyline has the potential to be melodramatic, yet is served so much better if it is coolly and delicately underplayed.

The emotion is downplayed in this production on almost every front of the theatrical presentation to better let the music and the singing speak for itself. The staging is restricted to boarding that is rearranged by what seems like water-nymphs or drowned lost souls, and rests on a couple of inches of water. The intention is to evoke the presence of the Volga, where the drama takes place in the little town of Kalinov, and emphasise the importance of the location and the significance that water plays throughout. If the concept is a little over-pronounced, it nonetheless proves highly effective, creating a calming impression, occasionally showing ripples and casting reflections on the mirrored background. With the use of lighting - impeccably lit and coloured - it establishes a perfect location that connects with the emotional resonance of the drama, without being too heavy-handed or obvious in the symbolism. It just feels absolutely right and it looks marvellous.

The reason why it feels perfect, is that it supports the important elements of the performance without imposing a false presence that could either overstate or take away from the intent of Janáček’s score - wonderfully played by the Teatro Real Orchestra conducted by Jiri Belohlavek - or indeed from the fine performances and singing. Katya is a complex character who undergoes some quite brutal treatment and yet remains despite of it all in thrall to her interior life, and it’s all too easy to highlight the grimness of the external drama at the expense of the beauty of the person inside. The only other staging I’ve seen of the opera placed emphasis - quite effectively, as it happens - on a recreation of a grim East European tenement block - but the concept here seems much more imaginative and in tune with the tone of the music. The contrast in Katya’s personality can also lead to over-emphasis bordering on madness, but Karita Mattila finds a perfect balance here in her acting performance and in her singing, exuberant in the right places, despairing in others, but reserved and internalised where necessary at the key moments.

Everything is pretty much as it should be in terms of the technical specifications of the FRA Blu-ray disc. A 1080i encode, presented in 16:9 widescreen, the image looks slightly soft, perhaps on account of the low lighting, but it fully captures the tones of the subdued but limpid lighting. The soundtrack comes with the standard PCM and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes, both of which perform well. The surround mix disperses the orchestration effectively, but on an empty stage the singing can seem a little echoing at times. It’s never less than powerful however. Really, High Definition and opera is a match made in heaven and this disc shows why. The Blu-ray includes a 24-minute interview with Robert Carsen and Jiri Belohlavek. In the spirit of the production, the booklet includes a detailed synopsis that doubles as a fine interpretative essay on the opera.