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Songs of reproduction

Covent Garden
10/09/2001 -  

09/28/01 and 1, 4, 10, 13, 16, 19 October

Leos Janacek: Jenufa

Karita Mattila (Jenufa), Anja Silja (Kostelnicka), Jorma Silvastri (Laca), Jerry Hadley (Steva), Eva Randova (Grandmother Buryjovka), Jonathan Veira (Foreman of the mill), Rebecca Nash (Barena), Elizabeth Sikora (Maid), Jeremy White (Mayor), Carole Wilson (Mayor's wife), Leah-Marian Jones (Karolka), Jennifer Higgins (Tetka), Eryl Royle, Jonathan Fisher (Solo voices)

Royal Opera orchestra and chorus

Bernard Haitink (conductor), Olivier Tambosi (director)

10/09/01 and 12, 17, 20, 25, 30 October

Richard Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten

Jane Henschel (Nurse), Christopher Booth-Jones (Spirit Messenger), Johan Botha (Emperor), Deborah Voigt (Empress), Gail Pearson (Voice of the Falcon), Adrian Clarke (One-eyed brother), Peter Wedd (Hunchback brother), Graeme Broadbent (One-armed brother), Gabriele Schnaut (Barak's wife), Alan Titus (Barak), Hilary Taylor, Eryl Royle, Andrea Hazell (Serving maids), Peter Auty (Apparition of a youth), Elizabeth Sikora (Voice from above), Jenni Bern (Guardian of the threshold)

Royal Opera orchestra and chorus

Christoph von Dohnányi (conductor), John Cox (director)

Jenufa and Die Frau ohne Schatten were both originally conceived long before the first world war. But both reached their final forms in the context of the war, Jenufa in 1916, FroSch in 1917. The importance of having children to replace, eventually, the people being killed, and to assert life in the face of death, must have been an urgent part of the reception of both operas, even if it was not so prominent in the composers' or playwright's original intentions. Poulenc, of course, used Apollinaire's 1903 playlet Les mamelles de Tirésias explicitly to assert life during of the second war (and brought it in under an hour). But the two earlier operas both have an elegiac tone, often sinking into portentousness in the case of FroSch, that overwhelms their nominal resolutions in married tolerance.

This is understandable in Jenufa, which is a kind of verismo, a dysfunctional family working out its conflicts within the confines of a village. FroSch in contrast is a theatrical fantasy, where glorious singing is supposed to form an integrated part of a visual and imaginative spectacle that raises bourgeois domesticity to grand myth. (FroSch was first intended to be the Magic flute to the Figaro of Rosenkavalier, but Hofmannsthal later cited the reactionary Italian Gozzi as his model rather than his radical contemporary Schickaneder.)

Yet at Covent Garden this month, it was Jenufa that had the great singing. Karita Mattila as Jenufa was sweetly powerful, in her presence as well as her singing, and very moving. Anja Silja was steely, and utterly heartbreaking, as the Kostelnicka. And Eva Randova, a former Kostelnicka, was world-weary but strong as the grandmother who's seen it all before. Jorma Silvastri as Laca didn't quite have the anger, though he certainly has the voice. Jerry Hadley as Steva was suitably buffoonish, though he could have done with some of Laca's vocal allure to justify Jenufa's initial love for him. The supporting singers and chorus were all also generally outstanding.

Bernard Haitink conducted the orchestra superbly in the reconstruction by Charles Mackerras and John Tyrell of Janacek's original version of the score, as performed in Brno in 1907. The more familiar version performed in Prague in 1916 was re-orchestrated by the chief conductor of the National Theatre, Karel Kovarovic, to reflect contemporary received wisdom. The most obvious difference, other than the orchestration, is the Kostelnicka's extended aria in act I, which explains why she identifies so strongly with Jenufa, and how she wants to save her from the pain she has gone through. Silja and Mattila resemble each other physically -- both are tall and blond with a hint of Marlene Dietrich perhaps -- and both started singing young and appear unlikely to stop soon. Both Silja's amazing, anguished performance and the early statement of the background make the whole opera less gothic, more sympathetic and more heart-rending.

Olivier Tambosi's production on the whole extracts the action from any particular time or place, and Frank Philipp Schlössman's sets provide only oppressive walls, converging on a narrow view of a cornfield, and a massive rock that breaks through the floor in act one, fills the Kostelnicka's house in act two and appears shattered after the world-destroying death of the child in act three. Like Mark Lamos' Wozzeck for the Met, there is perhaps less to the production than meets the eye, but the performances (in both cases) deliver the work almost complete without sets and concepts.

FroSch also had a distinguished cast of singers, but somehow they seemed to work away for several hours without delivering very much at all in spite of the promise of the spermatazoa and egg on the final curtain. David Hockney's hippyish set looked good, if gloomily lit, and Christoph von Dohnányi directed the orchestra with great style, keeping the lushness just the right side of camp. Of course, Strauss needs grand voices, but most of these singers stood there like puddings as they sang. Jane Henschel as the Nurse (a sinister white mask three-quarters of the way up a massive tent-like black veil) at least had a sinister presence. Gabriele Schnaut's rather abrasive tone and raddled glamour was about right for Barak's wife, a sister of Arletty the fishwife in Carné's Hôtel du Nord. There were a few hints of despairing tenderness between her and Alan Titus as Barak, but on the whole he boomed away, musically but not really in the drama. The same was even more true of Deborah Voigt's Empress and Johan Botha's Emperor.

It was no surprise that the four main characters ended up standing in a row, still singing away. Their costumes, fairy-tale via provincial Turandot, didn't help, but the real problem was the total lack of humanity in a production of an opera where being and becoming human is the central theme. The various spirit characters, and Barak's brothers, had an easier time, since they didn't have to be human or to sing so much, and generally gave pretty good performances.

But it was all a bit symphonic for an opera.

H.E. Elsom



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