It’s not often that I’m completely baffled by an opera production but Frank Castorf’s 2018 production of Janáček’s From the House of the Dead (Z Mrtvého Domu) at the Bayerische Staatsoper comes pretty close. Since I really can’t explain what’s going on I’ll try to describe the various elements.
Pavol Breslik headlines on a new recording of Janáček’s Diary of One Who Disappeared; a song cycle about a young man who runs off with a gyosy girl. The piece is given in its original arrangement which, besides tenor and piano, features a mezzo in several of the songs and a brief appearance by a three member female chorus. No doubt this is one reason it’s performed less often than it might be. Breslik is pretty much ideal for this music. Obviosly he’s completely at home in Czech and he sings with clear articulation and has a rather beautiful instrument. He’s well supported by Robert Pechanec on piano plus mezzo Ester Pavlu; who has quite a bright sound for a mezzo but works well enough with Breslik. Dominika Hanko, Zuzanka Marczelová and Mária Kovács make up the chorus.
The line up for Voicebox: Opera in Concert has been announced for the 2019/20 season. There are four shows:
The season opens on Sunday, October 20, 2019, with a double bill by Maurice Ravel, L’enfant et les sortileges and L’heure Espagnole. It’s a common pairing and often a very funny one. It’s piano score with Suzy Smith playing., The cast includes Holly Chaplin, Anika-France Forget, Danlie Rae Acebuque and Joshua Clemenger.
Sunday, December 1st, 2019 sees some welcome Janáček. We don’t see near enough of his work in Toronto. This time its Katya Kabanova. It’s not the jolliest of pieces but it’s musically and dramatically top drawer. The cast includes Lynn Isnar, Emilia Boteva, Michael Barrett and Cian Horrobin with Jo Greenaway at the piano.
There’s a remount of Charles M. Wilson’s Kamouraska, premiered by OiC in 2009, on Sunday, February 16th, 2020. It’s based on Anne Hebert’s novel about a tumultuous love triangle that plays out near a village in Quebec, with tragic consequences. The cast includes Jennifer Taverner , Aaron Dimoff and Matt Chittick. Robert Cooper leads the orchestra, cast and chorus.
The season closes on Sunday, April 5, 2020, with snobbery with violets in the form of Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur. The cast includes Sally Dibblee, Romulo Delgado aand Geneviève Lévesque Narmina Afandiyeva at the piano.
I guess previous times I’ve seen Janáček’s Jenůfa I haven’t really noticed the role that the idea of “bad blood” or inherited depravity plays in the plot but it’s there almost as starkly as in certain works by Zola and Buchan. Perhaps one of the strengths of Christof Loy’s very clean 2014 production for the Deutsche Oper is that it tends to show up such details. It’s certainly a very low key setting. All the action takes place in a plain white room with minimal furnishing. Costuming is modern (sort of); maybe 1950s or so. Sometimes one gets a hint of rather more going on on the edge of the stage but Brian Large’s typically close up video direction makes it hard to be sure. So, at least on disk, it’s all about the characters and their interactions and they are drawn pretty clearly.
The on/off saga of the Ensemble Studio’s promised Janáček’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared came to an apparent conclusion yesterday. It had been postponed at least once and even this morning the COC website is advertising a complete performance with two soloists and a small chorus.
It didn’t happen. What we got was a recital by Owen McAusland singing some excerpts from the Janáček plus Vaughan William’s The House of Life and Britten’s Les Illuminations. It was his last performance as a member of the Ensemble Studio during which time, among many other things, he sang several main stage performances as Tito covering for a sick Michael Schade.
Melly Still’s 2012 Glyndebourne production of Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen is straightforward and rather beautiful. Certainly the staging matches the magic of this extraordinary score. There are really two ideas underpinning the designs. The animals are very human rather than the furries sometimes seen. Their specific nature is hinted at rather than made terribly explicit. They are differentiated from the humans by being very boldly coloured. In contrast, the human world is a sort of monochrome 1920’s Moravia; all greys and browns. Within this framework there are some neat touches. The foxes carry their tales and use them to great demonstrative effect. The chickens are portrayed as sex workers with the cockerel as, sort of, their pimp. It’s not overdone and it’s very effective. The sets are centred round a stylized tree with other structures as needed being erected on the fly with flats so the action never really stops.
For the longest time the classic 1995 Glyndebourne recording of Janáček’s Věk Makropulos was the only video option. It’s now been re-released on DVD and Blu-ray in a completely remastered version. I watched the Blu-ray and it’s as well restored as the companion recording of Peter Sellars’ equally classic Theodora. As it’s drawn from a Channel 4 broadcast the picture is 4:3 and it’s presented here formatted for wide screens in what is, apparently, called “pillarbox” mode in the UK. At any event, the picture is excellent; certainly the equal of many more recent recordings, if not quite of the best HD quality. The sound, stereo only, is decent but a bit “boxed in” and the voices often seem to balanced a long way back.
This year’s opera offering from the Glenn Gould School at the Royal Conservatory is Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen. It’s a pretty good choice for a student production with a wide variety of roles and it’s a great vehicle for showing off the excellent Royal Conservatory Orchestra. The school has chosen to present the work in English translation which probably makes sense given the difficulties of training a whole new cast in Czech even though it somewhat undermines the composer’s extremely tight linkage of text and music.
Stéphane Braunschweig’s production of Janáček’s Jenůfa, recorded at Madrid’s Teatro Real, is austere and effective. The sets are almost empty. Mill sails appear from a slot in the floor to suggest the family mill, there’s a cot for the baby in Act 2 and some church benches in Act 3. That’s it. The rest of the “setting” is carried by a very effective lighting plot. I don’t think there are any big ideas here but it’s an effective, straightforward way of telling the story. Braunschweig also makes effective use of the chorus, especially in Act 1.
So what was I most impressed with on the opera and related scene in in 2013?
Big house opera
The COC had a pretty good twelve months. I enjoyed everything I saw except, maybe, Lucia di Lammermoor. Making a choice between Christopher Alden’s probing La Clemenza di Tito, the searing opening night of Peter Sellars’ Tristan und Isolde; the night when I really “got” why people fly across oceans to see this piece, Robert Carsen’s spare and intensely moving Dialogues des Carmélites or Tony Dean Griffey’s intense and lyrical portrayal of the title character in Peter Grimes is beyond me. So, I shall be intensely disloyal to my home company and name as my pick in this category the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Die Frau ohne Schatten. Wernicke’s production is pure magic and Anna Schwanewilms was a revelation.