Sunday, 11 April 2010

A Brace of Janaceks - A Belated Where's Runnicles report from the London opera houses

ENO, Katya Kabanova

Beforehand we were warned that this production bore something of a resemblance to the dreadful Royal Opera House Tristan (which has inexplicably won the Olivier opera award). This is indeed so. The stage is pretty bare, and the main piece of set consists of a wall. But there all similarity ends. The wall (which never moved in Tristan) is versatile, opening up and closing down space on the vast Coliseum stage in accordance with the development of the narrative. More crucially, it is linked to consistently intelligent direction (from David Alden following on from his magnificent Jenufa) and some great acting all combining to make a very powerful evening in the opera house.

At its heart is a wonderful performance from Patricia Racette as Katya. She sang beautifully, and powerfully throughout, and successfully conveyed Katya's multifaceted character – ranging through submission, desire, despair. Above all, she met the key challenge of being able to commit suicide convincingly. The end of the opera has its Tosca moment, which failed miserably in the recent Royal Opera House revival (since unfortunately one could see the heroine walking unharmed off stage). Here Racette leaps off the back of the stage to be caught sharply in the light for one brief moment before vanishing. It was beautifully done.

As with the recent Jenufa, the supporting cast all do themselves proud, but particular mention must go to the young lovers. I had not up until now believed that Alfie Boe was anything much to write home about, but as with everybody else in this production he gives a fine singing and acting performance here. The character plays a crucial role in moving the narrative along and Boe carries it off superbly. Anna Grevelius, as Varvara, was similarly fine.

I don't think I have previously heard Mark Wigglesworth conduct, although I have read glowing reviews of his Shostakovich and his direction of a number of operas I think in Brussels. My brother does not quite agree with me on this, but I thought he gave a blazing, compelling account of the score. The only place where things slightly sagged was at the beginning of Act 3 and this I ascribe partly to the setting where the collapsing building didn't quite come off. The orchestra proved again what a strong band they can be in the right hands.

This show was a compelling reminder of what English National Opera are capable of when they put their minds to it. I would always choose them over the Royal Opera if at all possible – I much prefer the Coliseum as a space to the Royal Opera – I have never been able to understand those carpers who think it is not suited to opera. Acoustically it is far warmer and more resonant than Covent Garden if you sit in the right places. This is an excellent production, the challenge for the Coliseum management now is to persuade me that they can put on consistently good work, and the first step in that direction would be better overall programming.



Royal Opera House, The Cunning Little Vixen

This revival of Bill Brydon's 1990 production of The Cunning Little Vixen possessed a trump card in the form of conductor Charles Mackerras who more than anybody else has made Janacek's operas a staple of the repertory. Unfortunately, it failed to match the passion, drama and excitement of the ENO Katya.

The first problem arose from the acoustic. When one has recently enjoyed an evening of the kind of overwhelming sound the Coliseum can generate, it is hard to adjust to the rather dead, distant sound that I often find (at least in the Amphitheatre) the Royal Opera has. This of course is nobody's fault, but it made me wish once again that we could arrange a system where the best productions in each house would simply be transplanted to the Coliseum stage as if by magic – of course I realise that logistically, if only because of the disparity in the size of the stages this is quite impossible, but still...

Leaving aside issues of acoustics, the much more serious problem with this revival is that the production just doesn't really work. I suppose it may have looked more daring and revelatory twenty years ago but frankly it now looks clunky. The story makes perfectly clear we that the passage of time is a significant element in the piece, you don't need to stick a clock face in the floor to emphasise the point. The various aerial acrobatics all look very nice but don't add anything to one's emotional engagement with the piece. Further there is too much faffing about with bits of set which holds up the musical and narrative drive. It's not overall that this is one of those productions that makes you want to shoot the director, but it just doesn't grip as David Alden did with Katya.

Nor is the singing in the same league. The standout performance unquestionably came from Christopher Maltman's Forester and the pub ensemble, in which he was joined by Robin Leggate as the Schoolmaster and Jeremy White as the Priest were the most dramatically effective moments in the piece. As the Vixen, Emma Matthews acted the part reasonably convincingly but just didn't have a large enough voice, and occasionally disappeared under the orchestra. Elizabeth Meister was a competent stand in as the Fox (replacing the indisposed Emma Bell) but none of the performers generated the kind of excitement present down the road at the Coliseum.

In the pit Mackerras drew some beautiful playing from the orchestra, but whether it was because the action was slowed by the staging, or the lack of a really first rank cast, or my own ears still ringing with the ENO sound somehow the dramatic excitement of a Mackerras performance was not quite there for me.

The Royal Opera has already announced a season without any Janacek next year, but we have yet to hear from ENO. The new Opera North/Scottish Opera Broucek has had excellent reviews, so perhaps we may hope for a London appearance of that. Alternatively, and my own personal big hope, is that ENO might give us From the House of the Dead, the one major Janacek I have never yet had the opportunity to see. On the basis of his Jenufa and Katya, David Alden would seem an ideal choice to direct it.

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