In advance, the odds of this performance scoring with me were finely balanced. On the one hand the man himself was in the pit and conducting possibly my favourite of all Janacek's opera scores. On the other, the director was Christof Loy, whose ROH Tristan I detested. In addition, the last time I saw this live at the Coliseum in the unusually excellent David Alden production, I found it an overpowering experience, and such a memory can often overshadow the next live performance of a work one hears. I'm pleased therefore to be able to report that, by Act Three, this performance had brought tears to my eyes.
Both conductor and director took a little time to settle. Indeed Loy nicely confused my brother who came out of the first act convinced that everyone was being doubled. This was an understandable confusion, partly because without English surtitles the specifics can become blurred, but also because of the way Loy deployed his personnel which in this act was not conducive to clarity. His big opening idea is that we start with the Kostelnicka in prison. This adds very little, Loy blends her back into the action in a rather muddled way and from then on we see no more of this so that one really wonders why he bothered: the more so given that the rest is a fairly minimalist production focused on effective direction of the protagonists. The white house, in which most of the action plays, does have a rather moveable rear wall, a little reminiscent of the pointless curtain in the ROH Tristan, but it functions here far more effectively. A few sparse landscapes are shown beyond the house – a telegraph line with a cornfield beneath it in Act One, changed to snow covered for the later acts – but basically we are confined within the house in a remarkably similar way to the Alden setting at ENO.
Among the singers the standout performer for me was Will Hartmann's Laca, commandingly sung and acted throughout. Jennifer Larmore's Kostelnicka in the first two acts I occasionally found a little underpowered vocally, but as the tragedy moves inexorably forward her acting carried me past this and the vocal performance strengthened in the third act. Her mental disintegration here was completely compelling. Similarly I would have liked a little more vocal warmth from Michaele Kaune in the title role who initially failed to erase memories of Amanda Roocroft at the Coliseum – but again she picked up and was spell-binding in the third act. All the supporting parts were well sung, with particularly fine turns from Stephen Bronk as the Mayor, Liane Keegan as his wife and Martina Welschenbach as their daughter in Act Three.
Both the Chorus and Orchestra were on top form as in Sunday's Lohengrin. On the podium I felt in the first two acts that Donald Runnicles didn't quite have the white heat that Mikhail Agrest brought to the ENO run, or that Charles Mackerras had in the ENO Makropulos Case but this was not the view of the rest of the party, and in Act Three I thought he was spot on.
It was wonderful to hear this opera performed live again. It reminded me what an extraordinary intense moving experience the third act is. It was a thing of wonder both at ENO and here to experience the way Janacek in those few moments at the end completely turns the mood around and offers hope after all the pain. It was also a privilege to be close enough to the stage to appreciate the detailed acting performances Loy drew from his company. The last performance of the season has now played, but a revival will be well worth catching.
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