December 6, 2013
High drama and low comedy
For the Herald
Jenufa and Falstaff receive good productions in BA
Few careers in opera have had so much trouble reaching a wide audience as Leos Janácek’s, a Moravian composer who lived between 1854 and 1928, now generally recognized as one of the most original talents of the 20th century.
A slow developer, it was only in 1887 that he tried his hand at opera with Sarka, the object of various revisions and tardily premièred in 1925, so that before Jenufa he only made known the one-act The Beginning of a Romance in 1894, based on a story by Gabriela Preissová. It was this writer who attracted the composer with the stark rural drama of her play Jeji pastorkyna (Her foster daughter), and he condensed from it the libretto of what came to be known outside Czechoslovakia as Jenufa.
It took him no less than ten years (1894 to 1903) to arrive to the version that was premièred in 1904 at Brno, the Moravian capital, whose great post-WWII Opera House is called Janácek. The opera was revised in 1907 and the new version was performed in 1911 and played for the last time in 1913. It was only in 1916 that the opera arrived in Prague, with further revisions made by Karel Kovarovic, director and conductor of the National (Národni) Theatre. But it was when Max Brod (supervised by the composer) translated the libretto into German that the opera, renamed Jenufa, took flight internationally, beginning in Vienna in 1918.
In Buenos Aires, it was premièred in 1950 with Karl Böhm on the podium. It met with great success, and was repeated the following year. It was revived in 1963 by Ferdinand Leitner. Finally, it was done in Czech in 1994 by Berislav Klobucar.
Buenos Aires Lírica’s version is the first done by a private company here, and it has a further element of interest: for the first time we are hearing the final Brno version as recovered in Mackerras’ recording (1982) by the conductor and by John Tyrrell. However, the dimension of the Teatro Avenida’s pit is a limitation, and we heard a version for reduced orchestra made by Tony Burke and published by Universal (Vienna). A pity, but it couldn’t be avoided.
What is it that impressed audiences so much, even in German? (a hard task, for Czech sounds so different, and the composer bases his melodic lines on the natural rhythm of the language). Undoubtedly, the earthy realism and sincerity of the composer, the beautiful melodies with folk inflections (he was a specialist in Moravian folk music) but wholly Janácek’s, the brusque contact with the miseries of human beings and their ambiguities (no one is entirely bad or good). Plus a quirky individualism that sweeps all before it and sounds like nobody else. Janácek produced five splendid operas between 1917 and 1928 (two of them are still unknown here, and these gaps should be filled promptly).
There was much to admire in BAL’s endeavour, certainly the most interesting enterprise of private opera companies this year. Swiss-Chilean conductor Rodolfo Fischer, who did a notable Ariadne auf Naxos (Strauss) for BAL in 2004, did a clean, accurate job, creating excellent rapport with the stage although lacking some punch; the need to use lateral loges for the xylophone and the brass meant that homogeneity was hard to obtain. He brought along two music assistants, Katherine Chu and Karin Uzun. Very good work from the Choir prepared by Juan Casasbellas, and both here and with the soloists one has to thank Igor Herzog for the good Czech instruction.
The cast had three strong points out of four. Daniela Tabernig was a sensitive and musical blond Jenufa, with a voice that encompassed all the elements of the part and good acting to boot. Adriana Mastrángelo was a dour, redoubtable Kostelnicka, the foster mother who, in a fit of madness, murders Jenufa’s child by Steva; the voice, steely and well projected, gave the right character.
She wasn’t helped by the makeup, which made her too young, and she was taxed in some high notes. Brazilian tenor Eric Herrero was a ringing and accurate Laca, conveying the complexity of a man who jealously disfigures Jenufa but who loves her and stays with her at the end. All three didn’t hesitate to break their voices when the drama became unbearable; it works in this piece.
The miscast fourth was Santiago Bürgi as the dissipated Steva; his body language was wildly exaggerated and unconvincing, and the singing was partially good. Old Buryja was well done by Virginia Correa Dupuy, and Norberto Marcos was fine in two parts. The others were in the picture.
The production by André Heller-Lopes was generally good, with fine groupings and with efficient collaborators (Daniela Taiana, stage design; Sofía Di Nunzio, costumes; José Luis Fiorruccio, lighting). A pity that there were serious mistakes in the final minutes: after confessing her crime, Kostelnicka comes up with a completely unnecessary revolver, and later Steva gashes his own face as a token of love to Jenufa, completely contradicting the libretto. But the producer respected the rural setting, an essential matter.
I will be brief about the première of Antonio Salieri’s Falstaff on a libretto by Carlo Defranceschi. The piece is light and agreeable, quite inferior to his fine French tragedy Les Danaïdes, performed here some years ago; it needs support and it got precious little of it. The orchestra was very poor and dull under conductor Mariana Ferrer.
The only exception was the plausible work by clavier player Alan Puyol. Three singers merit favourable mention: Alejandro Spies as the protagonist, Claudio Rotella as Bardolfo, and Patricia Villanova as Ms.Ford; the others I prefer not to name here. But it was the unrelieved grotesqueness of the staging by Diego Rodríguez that ruined the evening; when a comedy doesn’t elicit even a smile, something is seriously wrong, and indeed it was.