And after a brief spell with Wagner, back to operas which are entirely new to me…
I’m slightly ashamed to admit I don’t actually have or really know any Janacek (or even how to type the appropriate symbols to spell his name correctly), but that is now going to change. This music is lovely stuff, and was beautifully expressed by the ENO orchestra under the baton of Sir Charles Mackerras. It’s quite fitting that the orchestra should have first mention this time, as although there was some fine singing, the role of the orchestra seemed to me to be particularly important in this work, and they had the best tunes too. Unsurprisingly, Mackerras and co. received extremely enthusiastic applause. It seems unfair to single out a single subsection, but the flute and piccolo solos stood out (to me) as particularly excellent.
The production was that rare thing – an opera set in the same historical period as was intended in the original, in this case the 1920s. The set was austere and in dark muted tones of greenish grey, as were the majority of costumes, which, at least in the case of the women, were also deliberately unflattering in cut. However, the overall impression was of sombre elegance.
I enjoyed Cheryl Barker as Salome last year, and was looking forward to seeing her again. Her singing was strong and clear, and her characterisation of the complex Emilia Marty convincing. (As in Salome, her sexy dancing was not convincing, but this is a minor quibble.) Elena Xanthoudakis was also a very pleasant surprise in the small role of Kristina. I don’t know quite what to make of Robert Brubaker’s performance (as Albert); I really quite liked his voice when singing in lower registers, and it had an interesting smoky quality to it, but to my ears he sounded like he was straining painfully at the top end. I’ve read other reviews which have actually mentioned how well he coped with the tessitura, so perhaps he was having an off night. I did quite definitely like John Wegner’s Baron Prus, though. (What a surprise – Silverfin likes the best whichever singer in the opera has the deepest voice…) I hope it was supposed to be comic when he was stripping off and lounging around in an ‘alluring’ manner in Act 2, becuase it certainly entertained me. It wouldn’t feel like the ENO without a man wandering around in his pants at some point in the show, but it added comedy value that he kept his socks on.
On the subject of comedy, the opera as a whole was certainly not, but I believe that having a comedic element or episode somewhere serves to throw the tragic whole into sharper relief. Probably the most moving part of the performance was the scene between Emilia and the aged and semi-senile Hauk-Sendorf, an ex-lover from one of her past incarnations sung with great expression and touching quality by Graham Clarke. The last scene, where Emilia confronts her own life and death, was also moving. At least, musically it was. Although the direction hadn’t particularly bothered me up until then, I found the ending clumsy and confused, particularly Emilia flapping around in a demented manner with her bit of paper, while Kristina sat sulking.
Overall, though, a great night, and I will certainly be looking out for Janacek’s other operas in the future.