Cunning Little Vixen short on magic

The 2009 Florence recording of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen is bright, colourful, straightforward and fun but it doesn’t quite have the magic of the older Théâtre du Châtelet version.  Laurent Pelly’s production is quite straightforward with attractive sets and costumes and interesting choreography from Lionel Hoche.

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Watery Kat’a Kabanová

Robert Carsen’s producton of Janáček’s Kat’a Kabanová is typically simple and elegant.  Recorded at the teatro Real in Madrid it features a flooded stage with a large number of wooden pieces, like palettes, that are rearranged to form the set.  At the beginning of Act 1 the pieces form a pathway through the water simulating the banks of the Volga.  Later they are rearranged int a square at centre stage to represent the claustrophobic Kabanov house.  All this rearrangement is done by the ladies of the chorus who roll around in the water in white shifts.  No breaks are needed between scenes, just the intermezzi the composer provided for the purpose.  A mirror at the back of the stage reflecting the water and an elegant and effective lighting plot complete the staging.

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From the House of the Dead

Janáček’s last opera, From the House of the Dead, is a curious piece.  It sets certain episodes from Dostoevsky’s account of his life in prison into a collage of stories that doesn’t have a straightforward narrative arc at all.  It’s quite brutal, as one might expect, and very male dominated.  Few characters stand out as individuals and so the piece becomes very much an exercise in ensemble musical theatre.  The music is unusual too.  In Pierre Boulez’ words it is “primitive”.  Certain phrases are repeated over and over with minimal development to create a sort of “expressionist minimalism”.  It’s extremely interesting to listen to and a great sonic match for the brutal and repetitive nature of prison camp life.

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Kurtág and Janáček at the Extension Room

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Joel Ivany

Against the Grain Theatre have another hit on their hands.  Joel Ivany once again successfully combines young talent, unusual repertoire and a funky performance space to create a brilliant evening of song and story.  This time the space was a yoga studio on Eastern Avenue and the works on offer were the Kafka-Fragments op. 24 by György Kurtág and The Diary of One Who Disappeared by Leoš Janáček.  Neither work was written for the stage but both were well suited to Ivany’s sensitive direction and Michael Gianfrancesco’s minimalist “sets”.  Continue reading

Against the Grain Theatre’s season announcement

The following just in from arguably Toronto’s most exciting opera company; Against the Grain Theatre.  So a party, György Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments and Leoš Janáček’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared (with the brilliant Jacquie Woodley) and Figaro’s Wedding; a Toronto centred reworking of the Mozart classic with an orchestra for the first time.  Following on from successes like their Tranzac based La Bohème and a brillian The Turn of the Screw, this looks very exciting.

Full details, links for tickets etc, below the fold.

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But in me life has halted

It’s perhaps odd that somebody like me, who got into Janáček’s music as a teenager, should have taken so long to discover his operas but I’m so glad I did.  The latest discovery is Věk Makropulos in a 2011 recording from the Groβes Festspielhaus in Salzburg with Angela Denoke as the 337 year old diva Emilia Marty.  It’s a strange work dramatically; a sort of fantastic detective story.  Apparently it’s based on a comedy (by Karel Čapek, the guy who coined the modern meaning of “robot”) though how it got from a comedy to the opera is a bit of a mystery.  It’s weird, compelling and creepy but not at all funny.  It also has a terrific score. Continue reading

Thomas Allen and Eva Jenis in The Cunning Little Vixen

Once in a while a video recording comes my way that’s just pure delight.  The 1995 recording of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen from the Théâtre du Châtelet is one.  The creative team of director Nicholas Hytner (director), Bob Crowley (designer), Jean-Claude Gallotta (choreagrapy) and Jean Kalman (lighting) created a spectacle that is as much ballet as opera with vivid costumes and simple sets  It’s a rather splendid and touching adult fairy tale. Continue reading

Searing Kat’a Kabanová

The searing intensity of this 1988 Glyndebourne recording of Janáček’s Kat’a Kabanová overcomes a rather indifferent DVD transfer to great effect.

The production by Nikolaus Lehnhoff focuses on the inner emotions, or lack of them, of the principal characters especially Kat’a and the Kabanovicka. This focus is greatly aided by the simple but colourful semi-abstract sets that bring to mind Chagall or Kandinsky in their bold use of colour. The execution of the concept is first class. Nancy Gustavson, in the title role, gives a quite breathtaking portrayal of a mental breakdown, especially intense in the confession scene. She also sings quite superbly. Felicity Palmer as her mother in law is as chilling as one could possibly wish, nowhere more so than in the final scene as she walks away from Kat’a’s body. The Varvara, Louise Winter, the facilitator of Kat’a’s fatal affair, brings some real charm to what would otherwise be pretty unrelentingly grim.

The men have less to do and the only real stand out is bass Donald Adams as Dikoj. His scene with Palmer is oddly compelling in a revolting sort of way. The other men are perfectly adequate but it’s the women who carry the show here. The other real star is the LPO under Andrew Davis. This is a hell of a score and Davis, wonderfully supported by his players, makes the most of it. I just wish the sound quality had been better.

The production for DVD is adequate. Helped by the small stage of the old theatre at Glyndebourne video director Derek Bailey lets us see what is happening and only in Act 3 does he get a bit close up happy. All in all it’s not a bad job for a 1988 TV broadcast. The picture is tolerable. It’s 4:3 with hard English subtitles. As all 100 minutes of the opera are crammed onto one DVD5 it’s perhaps surprising it’s as good as it is. Sound is Dolby 2.0 and again “adequate” is as good as it gets. There are no extras or documentation beyond a chapter listing. The european release on a different label may be a little less Spartan.

Technical reservations aside, this is well worth seeing.

An everyday story of country folk

If Thomas Hardy had written an opera libretto he might well have come up with something like Janáček’s Jenůfa. It’s a simple rural love story with domestic violence, betrayal, desertion, bastardy and infanticide thrown in. It also has an absolutely gorgeous score mixing folkloric elements, incredible lyricism and some pulsating rhythmic sections. The opera was substantially modified after it’s 1904 Brno premier but in 1989 Glyndebourne put on the original Brno version in a production by Nikolaus Lehnhoff. It’s a three acter and opens with with scenes around a mill owned by Jenůfa’s fiancé, Števa. It’s all a bit cramped and old fashioned looking; probably a function of the small stage in the pre-reno Glyndebourne. Acts 2 and 3 take place inside Jenůfa’s foster-mother’s (Kostelnička) house and here the small stage makes the fairly simple room appropriately claustrophobic. What makes this performance worth seeing though is not the staging but the performances by the three principals; Anja Silja as Kostelnička, Roberta Alexander as Jenůfa and Philip Langridge as Jenůfa’s other suitor, Laca. They are backed up by a superb performance by Andrew Davis and the London Philharmonic. Davis just has an uncanny ability to wring every drop of lyricism out of score without sacrificing drama or forward momentum and he does it here every bit as well as he did in Ariadne at the COC back in May. Other reviews of this DVD that I have read have focussed heavily on Silja’s Kostelnička. I can see why. She is not far short of a force of nature and she drives the drama, especially in the horrific second act and the final scene. I think though that Alexander’s Jenůfa is just as important. She contributes the lyricism in the singing. It’s not that she lacks drama, she doesn’t, but she has a sweet toned voice that carries that element of the music through all three acts. Langridge’s Laca impressed me too. In Act 1 I wasn’t at all sure. He seemed miscast with the role not offering much for his stylish lyrical tenor but he grew on me during the more domestic bits of Acts 2 and 3.

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