Friday 22 August 2008

Prom 47 Janacek Osud

So what if the Proms don’t do fully staged operas ? If anything this performance of Janáček’s Osud proved the benefits of presenting opera shorn of decoration. Jiří Bělohlávek is changing the way Janàček is being heard in this country. His Excursions of Mr Brouček revealed the magic of the work as never before. Now he does the same with Osud. What he demonstrates is how closely the music and words follow similar syntaxes. These cadences grow specifically from the Czech language. Janàček's music rose from “speech rhythms”. He notated speech and was fascinated by its variations. So change the language and the distinctive patterns are lost. Hearing Osud in English removes the sharpness of the original, and breaks the connection between words and music. Bělohlávek restores Janàček’s context.

Osud isn’t as popular as Kàt’a Kabanova, Jenůfa and The Cunning Little Vixen because it isn’t conventionally dramatic and doesn’t tell a story. But don't judge Osud in those terms. The composer wrote a lot more music than opera and he didn't write for the UK market. The plot is bizarre, as if Janáček is acting out his inner frustrations. Anyone reading the composer's correspondence will recognize the recurring themes : his mistreatment of all the women in his life, his obsession with Kamila Stösslovà and the idea of having a child by her, which also relates to the end of his fallow periods as a composer. The pic shows the composer and Kamila hanging out at a spa one hot summer day in 1919). It’s not a roman à clef, though, and shouldn’t be taken too literally, except perhaps for its vague insights into the composer’s psyche. Yet listen to Osud as an orchestral fantasy with singers and choir, and the whole perspective changes.

Bělohlávek’s pacing was deft. The constant upward and downward cadences flowed naturally, the way speech flows up and down. Osud is propelled not so much by its plot as by this sense of movement, the rising notes like “questions”. It’s no coincidence that Janàček gives Živnỳ such long monologues. He’s talking, not showing off his coloratura skills (or whatever the male equivalent may be). And it’s “normal” speech not histrionics, even though it was sung. It’s a big part, for Živny is the composer’s voice as it were. That’s why I was so impressed by Štefan Margita. He understands how the part works in relation to the whole. It’s written so the voice is ever pushed into upper registers. Živnỳ’s underlying strain and tension are written into his music. You don’t need word for word or false passion : character is built into the music and interpretation grows out naturally from within. There’s also a lovely sensual edge to Margita’s voice which also indicates Živnỳ’s erotic, wilful nature. Nice, and subtly expressed.

Similarly, we know Míla’s mother goes mad, but her “mad scene” comes from within the music rather than through exaggerated volume. Rosalind Plowright was impressive vocally and emotionally, all the more so because she looked so composed ! In the broadcast, Amanda Roocroft described Míla as a bit vacant. It’s true, in the sense that she’s just a projection of Janáček’s idealized image of Kamila Stosslovà, in his opinion, a passive, put upon victim. But what attracted Živnỳ to her in the first place? A bit more colour might have helped. The minor parts were pungently sung, those sharp consonants shot out like staccato.

Members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra aren’t, for the most part, Czech speakers, but Bělohlávek gets idiomatic playing from them. The orchestration came alive with this pungent playing, brassy in the best sense of the word. Like the voices, a slight shrillness at the top highlights the underlying mood of discontent in the opera. It’s called Osud, after all, “fate” or “destiny”, that moves inexorably, against our will. Hence pizzicato passages which sound hollow and wooden, which Bělohlávek let unfold quietly, without adornment, just as in Živnỳ’s monologues where the orchestra falls silent while he sings. The keyboard parts were also refined, their spareness symbolic. The organ part in the Third Act is written with great subtlety. Instead of big, booming sonority, the organ interjected comments, like an otherworldy, invisible member of the orchestra, sometimes flutelike, sometimes like a horn. In the libretto, Živnỳ plays the piano. In this Prom, the orchestra’s pianist can be seen, surrounded by other musicians, yet playing alone. At the very end, the music ends suddenly, the last notes unfinished, frozen mid-air. On recordings, it can be missed, but in this Prom, Bělohlávek made sure it carried dramatic impact. Who needs staging when the orchestra is this well prepared ?

The Prom actually started with Dvòrak’s Slavonic Dances op 46. These were lovingly played but served mainly to make us appreciate Janàček all the more.

Here's the link to the full review :

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