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Nursing this kind of repertoire -- great works lying outside the range of core repertoire favourites, or fringe works by great composers -- is one of Garsington's ongoing strengths.

It was bold of Ingrams nevertheless to embark on a double bill of rare Janácek : Sárka, his first effort dating from 1887-8, when he had not yet fledged from the influence of his walking companion Dvorák (to whom he showed the first drafts), and retouched by the mature composer (with a Third Act orchestrated by his pupil Osvald Chlubna) for a belated Brno première in 1925, Otokar Ostrcil having rejected it for Prague; and Osud ('Fate'), with which the fifty year old Janácek dared -- following Jenufa, but a decade before his reputation was established in the capital -- to attempt an autobiographical piece (oddly like his coeval, Strauss, in the later Intermezzo, which Garsington staged last year) capturing some of the petulant and dreamy characteristics that were key parts of his own inconsistent makeup. Osud was only partly successful; with a proper appraisal today it can be seen as a Modernist-Expressionist masterpiece within the Central and (as yet still neglected) Eastern European tradition.

Sárka came first, the score given rich and full rein in Elgar Howarth's hands, a little uneven initially but soon flowering in dark, nervy clarinet writing, warm strings (notably for Ctirad) and some superb brass fanfares (Howarth knows a thing or two about how to nurse those) much in the vein of Smetana's Libuse, the opera's obvious precursor both historically and musically.

Wyn Pencarreg (Premysl) with warriors in Garsington Opera's production of 'Sárka'. Photo: Keith Saunders
Wyn Pencarreg (Premysl) with warriors in Garsington Opera's production of 'Sárka'. Photo: Keith Saunders

The opera, based on Julius Zeyer's play and composed in the late 1880s, is set in early Slavic history and (like several Czech operas and also Dvorák's oratorio St Ludmila) is about the Czech search for political security amid the rights of female succession and national identity in a pagan era. A rather stronger, overtly Wagnerian treatment of the same strange tale -- that of the male hero Ctirad, imported to demolish a group of female insurgents and trapped by their wiles -- was produced a few years later (1897) by Janácek's slightly older contemporary, the opera composer Zdenek Fibich (1850-1900). Here in the Janácek (unlike in Osud, which followed two decades later) there is less Tristan, more Lohengrin. But from time to time -- witness the fanfaring brass and jittery cellos -- there is more pre-echo than one might have expected of the folk-imbued, speech rhythms that inspired the mature composer.

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Copyright © 4 October 2002 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK


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