In 2006 I wrote: “I’m slightly ashamed to admit I don’t actually have or really know any Janacek, but that is now going to change.” And did it change? My arse it did. But this time I mean it; I really do. What gorgeous music! Obviously I don’t have another production with which to compare it, but it seemed to me that conductor Eivind Gullberg Jensen had a real feeling for the score, and brought out excellent playing from the orchestra, including some particularly nice solo string lines. The oboe and cor anglais were also stand-outs.
The production was updated somewhat, and costumes looking vaguely late 20th century, but the small-minded spitefulness and culture of casual alcoholism and abuse pervading the village was all too convincing. Amanda Roocroft was a searing Jenůfa, moving from a lively, romantic young woman at the start, to broken wreck spending most of her pregnancy hiding alone in a small room in her mother’s house, through grief and bereavement to a new strength and forgiveness at the end. Michaela Martens delivered a powerful performance as Kostelnička, torn between genuine love for her stepdaughter and nephew Laca, hatred for Števa and his offspring, religious mania, and an abject fear of scandal and her village’s disapproval. Although her act of murder is, at least to modern audiences, undoubtedly unforgivable, Martens was able to make the character’s actions understandable, and the subsequent mental breakdown believable.
Susan Gorton was another acting highlight, bringing some rare moments of humour to the smaller role of Grandmother Buryja. Unfortunately many of the other roles and chorus appeared to be competing for the prize of Ham of the Show, with a great deal of ‘angry’ stomping and fist clenching, ‘drunk’ staggering and bottle-waving, and some of the most unconvincing stage prostitutes I’ve seen for a while. There were two silly peasant dances – an operatic convention of which I am far from fond – but fortunately they were both short. Tom Randle (Števa) and Robert Brubaker (Laca) indulged in a fair amount of this during Act 1, but then raised their performances considerably for Acts 2 and 3. Števa appeared first as a standard unpleasant lout, drunk in charge of a motorbike and flirting with other women to wind up his girlfriend, but became truly despicable in his later careless abandonment of Jenůfa and their child. Laca actually succeeded in making the audience, like Jenůfa, eventually warm to him; not an easy task considering his early violence towards her.
Vocally, this was a strong ensemble without weak links. In Act 1 I found Martens’ voice harsh and strident, but this is not inappropriate for the character, and in in her Act 2 scenes at home with Jenůfa she was like a different singer completely (again, entirely appropriate for delineating Kostelnička’s public and private personae), with warmth and roundness of tone. The two women’s voices worked very well together, and Act 2 was essentially one long musical highlight. I was also very pleasantly surprised by Robert Brubaker, who I thought was straining for the top notes when I heard him in 2006. No straining tonight, just a rich and ringing sound, forceful without being forced, and that dark smoky tone I particularly like in tenors.
Must listen to more Janáček.
Must listen to more Janáček.
In fact, I would like to buy a recording of this opera, and would appreciate readers’ suggestions, if anyone has any?
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.5 ”Emperor’ (with Mariela Cingo)
Mozart: Symphony No.41 ‘Jupiter’
plus pieces by Salieri and Haydn
7.30pm, Saturday 25 April 2009
St Mark’s Church, Westmoreland Rd, Bromley BR2 0TB – map
(3 mins from Bromley South Station)
Free entry with collection at the end. All profits to be shared between the Macmillan Cancer Support and CentrePoint charities.
Image by N Fisher, borrowed from entertainment. timesonline.co.uk
In a second instalment of one-eared opera appreciation, I was at the matinee of Dutchman this weekend, still with the middle ear infection. Fortunately the dizziness has now gone, so I was able to scale the heights of the Upper Slips with no problem. Less fortunately my defective ear was the one facing the stage, but on the other hand, I could hear no snoring from the elderly woman dozing peacefully next to me.
I think she was probably the only person present who was dozing; this was generally an energetic and excitingly-sung and played musical performance which was appreciated greatly by the packed house.
The overture was accompanied visually by a large grey curtain which flapped in the win, had lights and shadows projected on it, and real water trickling down it to represent a storm at sea. This was very effective, although the novelty wore off somewhat after a couple of minutes; however, the excellent music was quite enough to hold one’s attention by itself. The main set, when it appeared, consisted of a big curved piece of riveted metal with portholes, which was both stylish and convincing as a ship (although a little less appropriate for the sewing factory and Daland’s house). The Dutchman’s ship was simply and effectively depicted by a huge shadow which crept across the stage, engulfing the napping Steersman.
I am quite happy to have the sets and costumes updated to the 20th century (somewhere around the middle?), and not bothered at all by the female chorus on rows of sewing machines rather than spinning wheels. I was not so keen on the Dutchman portrait being replaced by a model boat, which Senta carried around with her sometimes. Still, small complaints. It also made a change to see a fairly straightforward interpretation with no incest or gang rape (although some of the sailors appeared to be groping the Steersman inappropriately at one point), and where Senta and the Dutchman actually looked at eachother sometimes during their ‘love’ duet.
I have heard Bryn Terfel sing this role before, so had high expectations. I was not disappointed, as he was in great voice throughout, in complete command of his role and the stage. I thought his singing had some stylistic differences from previous performances and recordings – a little rougher-edged, and less legato – but this was entirely in keeping with Tim Albery’s unromantic, anti-glamorous vision of the character and story. I enjoyed Anja Kampe’s Senta very much; her voice was clear, strong without ever being strident, and seeming quite at ease with this challenging music. I was also impressed with her ability to make Senta a sympathetic character, which is not an easy task. She came across as neither brattish, deranged or a masochistic martyr, but as a young woman with simply a huge surfeit of compassion for those less fortunate. (She even tried to be kind and comforting to the Dutchman’s crew when they briefly turned up.) The pair of them were very convincing both individually and together.
Of the other roles, I thought Hans-Peter König was an excellent Daland. A lovely rich dark bass tone, who could hold his own quite comfortably even at the extreme depths of the register. While opting for a straightforward take on the ‘character’ (such as it is), he managed to make him a real and even believable person. I shall be looking out for him in the future. I fared less well with the tenors. I found Torsten Kerl’s Erik intensely unpleasant on the ear, and John Tessier’s Steersman not much better. However, under the circumstances it seems quite possible that something in the frequency range of the tenor voice happened to set my malfunctioning ear a-rattling, so it may have been not their fault but mine. Kerl didn’t seem to be doing an awful lot of acting when I could see him, whereas at least Tessier entertained with a silly dance and a slapstick fall into a big puddle*.
On the subject of seeing the stage, I do understand when scrimping on a cheapy Upper Slips ticket that it is with restricted view, and I also understand that directors don’t like to have all the key scenes in the middle of the stage. However, I do think that if they’re going to put important arias, duets etc. in the corner where they know some of the audience won’t be able to see, the least they could do is share them out a bit more fairly between the left and right corners! I drew a bit of a short straw this time and missed quite a lot of the action. However, I stood up and leaned over (Health & Safety!) for the ending, and was impressed by Senta jumping and hanging onto the departing ship’s gangplank. It would have been a really great ending if she’d exited in this manner, but she let herself fall down again after about a metre (Health & Safety again?). Everyone else wandered off, and it ended with her falling over, presumably either dead from Unexplained Operatic Death Syndrome or from stabbing herself with the mast of her toy boat.
The orchestra sounded very good under Marc Albrecht’s tight direction and pacey tempi, especially strings and horns, and the large chorus were also highly disciplined and strong.
* Yes, there was a great big puddle on the ship’s deck, in the sewing factory and in Daland’s house. I’m not sure it really added much.