Staatsoper

Janáček, The Makropoulos Affair

The Vienna State Opera kindly offered me a heavily-discounted ticket to tonight’s performance of The Makropoulos Affair by Leoš Janáček, which I naturally accepted. This is a very peculiar opera – well-known but not often performed. I have seen it once before, in a perfectly acceptable but in the end not memorable performance at the Gelikon Opera in Moscow in 2010, and I’ve heard it (without paying too much attention) broadcast from the Met. So tonight also presented an opportunity to try to figure this one out.

This is the first time the Staatsoper has put on this opera (premiere was last week). The staging by Peter Stein certainly helped make it accessible, paying loving attention to the libretto to make this odd piece understandable even without a mastery of Czech. The scenes were realistic but essentially simple, putting the emphasis on the performers, who then acted out their lines, which called for little action but much psychodrama. And this was not the sort of psychodrama that appears in Tschaikowsky’s great operas, but a whole other order, crossing into a world of magic and legend. That the libretto was based on a comic play (Janáček’s opera was no comedy) meant that a sense of humor pervaded the bizarre predicament of a woman whose body has lived for 337 years but whose soul has long since died, and now she wants to give up.

Laura Aikin headed the cast in the role of Emilia Marty (a.k.a. Elina Makropoulos, a.k.a. many other names with initials E.M.). She has wanted to sing this dynamic role for many years, and learned to sing Czech for the occasion. As the central character, all others had to react to her, so her success in portraying this multi-faceted role enabled the rest of the cast to blossom: Ludovit Ludha (Albert Gregor), Thomas Ebenstein (Vítek), Margarita Gritskova (Krista), Markus Marquardt (Jaroslav Prus), Carlos Osuna (Janek Prus), Wolfgang Bankl (Dr. Kolenatý), and longtime audience favorite Heinz Zednik (Hauk-Šendorf). Thanks to this group, I now indeed comprehend this opera and its fine nuances.

In the pit, the young Czech conductor and Janáček specialist Jakub Hrůša drew out all of the composer’s fantastic coloring to support the action, never to supplant it. This is not an opera that has the audience leaving the house humming its tunes, and the music can be quite complex, but it nevertheless cannot detract focus from the stage. Hrůša understood the right balance, while enhancing the singing. The orchestral playing was also magnificent.

Czech National Opera

Janáček, From the House of the Dead

The Czech National Opera performed Janáček’From the House of the Dead at the Czech National Theater this evening. Or at least the singers and orchestra did. I do not know what opera the stage director decided to stage at the same time.  Daniel Špinar’s biography does not indicate any connection to Germany – he is Czech and studied in Prague, but nevertheless managed to put German-style nonsense on stage, devoid of connection to the plot.

Janáček’s opera is difficult even under the best of circumstances. It is meant to be a dark psychodrama, without a lot of first-hand action (although there can be some visual reenacting of the plot descriptions sung by successive characters). Loosely based on Dostoyevsky, it takes place in a bleak prison in Omsk, Siberia. If left alone, the little action that does take place can simply allow thoughtful performers to use their lines to create images; however, there also remains room for intelligent direction.

On the musical side, the performers acquitted themselves as best they could under the circumstances. The orchestra sometimes sounded a bit thin, but conductor Robert Jindra kept the pace and shape. A cast composed of repertory singers had no standouts, and since there really is no lead character in this opera this was fine. They certainly did not disappoint. However, the staging proved too distracting to allow the cast to give full portrayals.

The action moved to what looked like a broken-down music school in Soviet times (at least the prison guards were wearing Soviet uniforms, otherwise who knows?). During the overture, the prisoners came on stage in front of the scrim wearing white tie. As they started to mimic the conductor in front of the orchestra, an officer forced them to take prisoners numbers and have mug shots, before sending them each off dejected. When the curtain opened for the first two acts, they were in prison uniforms in the practice room, a smashed piano on the floor and music stands everwhere. In Act One, they all carried brooms; in Act Two, they had trash bags. The walls were grungy, the floor tiles were ripped up, and there was a lot of homosexual sex going on. A lot (yes, I get it, it is a prison, but is this really necessary?). When the plot called for the prisoners to tend to an eagle who had broken a wing and been adopted by them, they started fawning over the ruined piano. Periodically they gathered the music stands together and performed on their brooms or other objects.

When the curtain came up in Act Three, someone had repaired the piano, the floor, and the walls, and all the prisoners wore white tie again. A mostly-naked female dancer came on stage (representing a character in the story being told by one prisoner) and contorted herself uncomfortably all over the floor and literally climbed the walls. Why?, we may never know. When the story line called for the eagle, nursed back to health, being set free by the prisoners, a miniature upside-down piano flew off the top of the stage. (If the director wanted to represent the eagle, why not have an eagle instead of a upside-down flying miniature piano? The eagle is right there in the plot!) In all, the director thought he was clever by staging some other opera tonight to represent the one on the program, but it would be much more clever to actually stage the opera on the program.

I bought a ticket because I had wanted to see this rarely-performed opera. I still haven’t seen it.

Berlin Philharmonic, Musikverein (Vienna)

Janáček, Bruckner

Somehow I had never seen Simon Rattle nor heard the Berlin Philharmonic live until they visited the Musikverein tonight. They were very good, but not as good as anticipated, which made for a disappointing first listen.

The concert opened with Leoš Janáček’Sinfonietta – or a muddle pretending to be that work. The trumpet choir on the Musikverein organ balcony behind the orchestra looked lost and unprepared. Perhaps they have practiced in a semi-circle and not a line where they cannot see each other (although they had an unobstructed view of Rattle). I can be sympathetic if this is the case, as it happened to me in a brass quartet during my senior year at Exeter, but I would hope there is a big difference in preparation time and quality between an amateur high school brass quartet and the Berlin Philharmonic. The rest of the orchestra tried to recover somewhat, but this is a difficult syncopated piece, and they never quite sounded like they got it together. As the Sinfonietta raced to its finale, the musicians held on for dear life, hoping to get all of the notes out at some point, no matter if at the right point.

After the intermission, the orchestra regrouped for Bruckner’s 7th Symphony. This one they got together for, and produced very fine sounds. But Bruckner is meant to be emotion-shattering, allowing a glimpse of heaven – whereas tonight’s performance, though technically flawless, provided no such thing. Where the first movement should wash the audience in great waves of sound, this performance just had sound, fluctuating tensely. The funeral movement – composed when Bruckner learned of the death of Richard Wagner, whose musical advances freed him to conceive of another world of possibilities – should reduce the audience to the tears Bruckner had in his eyes when he wrote it, but tonight’s version showed no emotion. This was not the blockish interpretation of Bruckner standard from such Prussian oompahs as Christian Thielemann, rather indeed a fuller and better attempt, but nevertheless missing a soul.

The audience gave a loud applause, but I heard a lot of German accents in the crowd. The Austrians headed for the doors.

Czech Philharmonic, Musikverein (Vienna)

Martinů, Janáček

I checked in with the Czechs this morning at the Musikverein: the Czech Philharmonic under Jiří Bělohlávek performed works by Martinů and Janáček.

The Martinů pieces proved the most rewarding.  The concert opened with the somber Memorial for Lidice, a short work composed from exile in memory of a village by that name which was erased from the map and whose entire population was murdered by the Germans in 1942 as reprisal for the assassination by Czech patriots of Reinhard Heydrich, the German occupation government’s “Imperial Protector of Bohemia and Moravia.”  A fitting tribute.

Martinů’s Sixth Symphony followed, much more developed in the style of this composer.  His sophisticated, and extremely challenging, music rises from the chromatic chords and heads in all directions.  It could come across as rather disjointed if performed by lesser forces.  But Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic understood the idiom, allowing the music to flow and soar, treating the ears to thrilling new methods of experiencing sound.  Martinů’s music is no secret to those who know, but the level of difficulty in making music out of modernity has perhaps limited his exposure.  Well-performed Martinů is always worth hearing.

After the intermission, the orchestra returned with the original manuscript version of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass.  After the first performance, the composer had made changes, and it was the revised version that got published.  The revised version eliminated some of the overbearing percussion (which made the work less regligious in feel) and softened or tightened the orchestration elsewhere.  Now that I’ve heard the original manuscript version, I would tend to agree with the composer that the changes were necessary.  Though we had excellent performers this morning, the work did perhaps suffer from a lack of fluidity. The Vienna Singverein and four soloists (Hibla GerzmavaVeronika HajnováBrandon Jovanovich, and Jan Martiník) joined the orchestra enthusiastically.

Gelikon Opera, Arbat Theater

Janáček, The Makropoulos Affair

The Makropoulos Affair by Janáček at the Gelikon-on-Arbat.

The Gelikon Opera is still performing temporarily in a very small theater while its own home is being renovated. This setting (minimal stage, full orchestra pit, seating on one level – no balconies – with only about ten rows and thirty seats per row) gave the performance an added degree of intimacy.

Musically it was very good, as expected from the Gelikon. The production used traditional costumes, but with such a tiny stage there was not much room for a staging, so it was a bit abstract. Still, it was thoughtful, meaning it added to the understanding of the plot, and therefore worth staging and not doing a concert version despite the sub-optimal conditions. Clearly the director had thought about this. Also likely that the director had never been to the opera in Germany (thankfully).

The program advertised that Gennady Rozhdestvensky would conduct, but he was not there. Vladimir Ponkin took his place.