When the Festival brochure came out this was one of the show's I hesitated about. I wasn't at that stage sure how long I was going to come up for, I could (transport permitting) see it in Nottingham in the autumn, and I had recently seen the ENO revival of this opera. Suffice it to say that I was extremely glad I decided to join my brother at last night's performance.
Opera North has very strong recent pedigree in Janacek, as I noted when I previewed the opera programme, including a marvellous From the House of the Dead last year. This production continues in that fine vein – especially on the musical side - making this a worthy return visit to the Festival for them.
The opera is performed in English, and with one slight exception which I'll come on to, this is an entirely happy decision contributing to the real dramatic punch of the evening. The company's diction is mainly excellent, with the text delivered clearly and with point. This is an opera which, with its large number of medium sized parts, needs a really strong ensemble, and Opera North have assembled one including Paul Nilon (Albert Gregor), James Creswell (Kolenaty) and Stephanie Corley (Kristina). The only singer who is not wholly satisfactory is Yiva Kihlberg's Emilia Marty. She doesn't quite have either the stage or vocal presence to dominate proceedings in the way the character should and as Cheryl Barker did for Mackerras in the original run of ENO's current production. Part of the problem is I think that she, unlike the rest of the cast, is not wholly comfortable with the English – or at least she didn't sound wholly comfortable – and I would be interested to hear her perform the role in Czech. But too much stress should not be placed on this, – it is a very creditable attempt and there is much to appreciate in her performance.
In the pit the Orchestra of Opera North under Richard Farnes's direction give an absolutely blazing account of the score. Unlike in the ENO revival under Richard Armstrong, I did not find myself haunted by the memory of Mackerras. Farnes has the requisite sense of drama and shaping, and turns the mood spot on in the final moments as Marty faces death. This performance proved once again the top class credentials of this band.
Tom Cairns's staging is not one that will especially live in the memory. It is best described as sensible and straightforward, and I do mean those terms in a positive sense. The setting and movement reinforce the narrative and music rather than obscuring both (as was frequently the case in the Alden production at ENO). I thought he could have brought more depth to the interaction of the characters at various points (he doesn't do much with the moment when Janek is falling for Marty while Kristina looks on) but the musical reading was powerful enough to compensate the slight lack of depth in the direction.
Altogether this was another powerful reminder of what an extraordinary opera composer Janacek is. I'm not sure anybody else compares with him in terms of conveying character and narrative with such powerful economy. Also there's the remarkable way he can switch moods very abruptly, particularly in the final moments of the opera married to a telling text. There's something very haunting about Marty's remark- “Why was I afraid of it?”
The run has now ended in Edinburgh but audiences down south should not miss this during the Opera North autumn season.