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Cycle, festival, marathon, trilogy or operatic fever ?

Opéra National de Lyon
05/10/2005 -  

May 10, 18, 20, 26, June 1 2005
Leos Janacek : Jenufa
Orla Boylan (Jenufa), Anja Silja -May 10, June 1- Kathryn Harries -May 18, 20, 26- (Kostelnicka), Robert Brubaker -May 10-, Stefan Margita -May 18, 20, 26, June 1 (Laca), Valentin Prolat (Steva), Menai Davies (Burya)
May 11, 17, 21, June 2 2005
Leos Janacek : Katia Kabanova
Eva Jenis (Katia), Kathryn Harries (Kabanikha), David Kuebler (Boris), John Graham-Hall (Tikhon), Linda Tuvas (Varvara), Timothy Robinson (Kudriach), Jonathan Vieira (Dikoj)
May 12, 22, 24, 29, June 3 2005
Leos Janacek : The Makropulos Case
Anja Silja (Emilia Marty), David Kuebler (Gregor), Steven Page (Prus), Jonathan Vieira (Kolenaty), Neil Jenkins (Vitek), Jessica Miller (Krista), Josef Kang (Janek)

Orchestra and Chorus of the Lyons Opera, Lothar Koenigs (Conductor)
Nicholas Lehnhoff (Director), Tobias Hoheisel (sets and costumes), Wolfgang Goebbel and Paul Hastie (lights)
Productions from Glyndebourne

If there was still any need to prove that the Lyons Opera is the most innovative among the French Opera houses, this Janacek Festival is indeed there to confirm the statement. Within an exciting season’s programme, they now have now proposed what they call a “Trilogy” by the Czech composer, whose international popularity is steadily increasing.

Obviously, the word “Trilogy”, quite suggestive within the lyrical psyche, is a mere invention, but the Lyons Opera has endowed it with a persuasive force. Why a trilogy -and by the way not a triptych ! , regarding Leos Janacek ? The composer has produced a total of 9 operas, 5 are regularly performed, none belongs to a cycle, whatever it may be. Beyond the culture shock on the city itself (Festival Janacek posters everywhere, schools involved, enthusiastic young public, T-shirts…), the unifying aspect could then have been the desire to build an attractive cycle à-la-Wagner. Consequently, the 3 productions all come from Glyndebourne (1988, 1989, 1995, available on DVDs), the conductor and the director are the same, and the performance days are conveniently chosen to satisfy the opera goers from far away.

Another more pertinent reason is to be found in the inner substance of the three selected works. Jenufa is a rural country drama told in a realistic manner ; Katia stands as the universal example of a married woman torn between love and social conventions ; Makropulos recaptures the metaphoric human drive towards eternal life, in this case the dilemma of a “300-year-old beauty”. Above all, they are dramatic stories about women, broken young women, victims of society or of their family, albeit struggling for recognition. Towering over the various facets of this “trilogy”, Janacek’s music is the common and powerful unifying element. He has composed the 3 operas presented here over a period of 30 years, but even if Jenufa is still influenced by his musical education -Dvorak, the German tradition, folklore-, their characteristics are unmistakable : concise, iridescent, intensely lyrical. Never have libretti texts been so interwoven with music writing, leading to what has been called “speech melody”. In that respect, Makropulos, his next to last opera, written 4 years before his death, stands as a masterpiece of his wild style. The author, in a letter dated 1925, while finishing its final scene, spoke of “melodic and harmonic somersaults” !

Nicholas Lehnhoff, who directed the Glyndebourne creations has been here to supervise these revivals. On DVDs, they have been universally acclaimed, and what was presented in Lyons was certainly up to the challenge. Lehnhoff’s achievement, close to perfection, can only be admired and applauded. Some sets have been reworked (Katia Kabanova), otherwise most original elements have been kept. Jenufa’s staging is resolutely traditional, except for a few flaws (e.g. villagers ransacking the room in the ending scene, followed by Laca shuffling his beloved outside through a narrow door), Acts II and III were so powerfully effective that spectators felt riveted to their seats. Katia was the most visually beautiful of the three, with sets shining pure, intense, symbolic colors reminiscent of Fauve paintings (thanks to Tobias Hoheisel, assisted by Wolfgang Goebbel’s effective lighting), an incredible match to the pantheistic scenes : “raw earthiness”, in the composer’s terms. Makropulos attempted to redefine the passing of time through ingenious slow motions circling around the actors, while striving with great effort to harmonize a disjointed and garrulous libretto.

Lothar Koenigs has successfully managed to overcome the difficult task of weaving the 6 hours of complex and dense scores, over 3 days. Some musicians indeed think they are harder to master than Berg’s operas. With energy and enthusiasm he distributed the leads to the pulsating music to his large orchestra, for Janacek’s operas are also vast symphonies concertante for every instrument, particularly the brass.

Due to the sequencing of each performance, the productions have necessitated 3 different casts, with a few famous names among many younger singers mostly coming from the anglo-saxon lyrical world. Orla Boylan, as an engaging Jenufa, with excellent voice projection, combining nuances and overall balance. On May 10, for the delicate role of Laca, Stefan Margita, ailing, was replaced at the last minute by Robert Brubaker who flew in at noon. Having been in the cast of the 2004 Glyndebourne’s Jenufa, he embodied it as if he had just been part of the dress rehearsal and was appropriately cheered by a beaming and thankful audience. However the towering presence of Anja Silja, as the Sacristina, dominated the performance. Her vocal expression is harsh, cutting like a knife, however her brilliant highs and dramatic abilities left a memorable imprint on everybody in the theatre.

The cast for Katia Kabanova was no less impressive, each singer physically and vocally seeming to personify the dramatic characters. Eva Jenis is a perfect Katia, vulnerable, sensitive, frantic with emotions, shivering like a butterfly breaking its wings against the walls of a cage. Amazingly for such a frail artist, she has an imposing voice and colourful timbre. David Kuebler as Boris and Timothy Robinson as Kudriach both demonstrate a good balance of timbre, aptly meeting the “melodic realism” intended by the composer. Kathryn Harries, although indisposed, insisted on performing ; thanks to a remarkable domineering presence on stage (in particular in her duo with Dikoj at the end of the first scene of Act II) she was able to make up for her weakened voice.

Finally, in The Makropulos Case, Anja Silja once more prominently took over the stage. It is an understatement to say that she plays Emilia Marty, she embodies her heroin to a degree that only a deep knowledge of the work (she started to sing the role in 1970) and some parallel wounds in her personal life can explain. Failing to express the vocal beauty of a diva - but was it Janacek’s intention, who spoke of “aphoristic little motifs” ?, her problem of a sharp voice throwing notes like bullets, seems to fade behind a physical presence not to be forgotten. Around her one can pinpoint Steven Page, as Prus, both impressive and stylish, and Jonathan Vieira (who, in fact, sang in the 3 operas), a solid baritone although overacting his part as the lawyer Kolenaty.

Altogether a memorable event, whose importance has not escaped the audience, expressing, at curtain fall, delight for the evenings and a strong appreciation for Leos Janacek’s genius.

Alain Dornic



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