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Death and the Maiden

New York
Dicapo Opera Theatre
02/19/2009 -  & February 21, 27, March 1
Leos Janácek: Sárka
Kristin Sampson (Sárka), Erik Nelson Werner (Ctirad), Zurab Ninua (Premysl), Sanjay Merchant (Lumir)
Dicapo Opera Orchestra, Oliver Gooch (Conductor)
Walter Sutcliffe (Stage Director), Samuel Bill (Orchestral Reduction), Francine Harmon (Choreographer), John Farrell (Set Design), Angela Huff (Costume Design), Susan Roth (Lighting Design), Robert Westley (Fight Director)

(© James Martindale)

Sárka, Leos Janácek’s first opera, remains obscure. Janácek began work on it in 1887, completing the vocal score in five months. But there was a problem. When he wrote to Julius Zeyer, the author of the play on which Sárka is based, for permission to use it, Zeyer refused. Janácek put the score away. He took it out again after the success of his opera, Jenufa. By then, Zeyer was dead, and Janácek could – and did – apply to the Czech Academy, which then owned the rights to the play, for permission to use it as a libretto. Permission was granted. Sárka premiered in 1925, thirty-eight years after it was written.

It’s a very short opera. The performance at the Dicapo Opera Theatre was over in about ninety minutes. It’s also rather short on drama and character development. The thin plot involves a mythological battle of the sexes. Sárka leads a band of women warriors who are rebelling against male rule. Ctirad is a young male warrior. Sárka has herself tied to a tree as bait for Ctirad. When he gallantly rescues her, she has him killed, even though she had fallen in love with him during their duet. Then, overcome with grief and guilt, she commits suicide on his funeral pyre.

The plot and language are rooted in the natural world. Director Walter Sutcliffe, who is also working across town as one of the assistant directors of the Met’s superb new production of Il Trovatore, did a brilliant job despite the dual limitations of plot and characterization. The staging was highly stylized, symbolic, spare, and very beautiful. There was a pronounced Asian influence in the imaginative use of screens (which, at times, became transparent), the style of the illustrations depicted on them, and the costumes for the male characters. There were only three colors – black, white, and red. The costumes for the female characters were bright red, with the exception of Sárka’s suicide outfit which was white. The male warrior band wore black.

The orchestra, under the baton of Oliver Gooch, did justice to the frequent beauties of Janácek’s music with its frequent changes of texture and dynamics. They were particularly effective in the mighty choruses. The music was highly chromatic, and made extensive use of leitmotivs. Janácek did not give the soloists long extended melodies. Much of the melodic interest and loveliness was in the orchestra and the choruses.

The quality and robustness of the singing was impressive. Kristin Sampson, as Sárka, has a lovely voice. She sang with primal force and excellent control, although she was a bit shrill at the top of her range. Erik Nelson Werner, as Ctirad, had trained as a baritone and only recently switched to tenor roles. He has a beautiful dark and dusky tone and ringing top notes.

The singer who impressed me most, however, was Zurab Ninua, in his relatively small role as Premysl, the leader of the male warriors. He projected his sonorous bass-baritone with unforced power, investing his solos with gravitas and majesty. And he sang with a beautiful legato line. A Georgian by birth, Ninua studied at the Tiflis Conservatory in Georgia, as did the baritone, George Gagnidze, who last month made a distinguished Met debut in Rigoletto. Ninua has long experience as a choral director and singer in a chorus. When he sang in Janácek’s stunning male choruses, his voice was the most beautiful part of the whole. The last chorus was just glorious in its power, yearning, and exquisite blend of voices.

I look forward to seeing and hearing Mr. Ninua in the many other productions that are sure to come his way.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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