Brno Janacek Festival 2020 Review: Osud

Carsen’s Imaginative Production Cannot Fully Overcome A Flawed Libretto

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Marek Olbrzymek)

Janacek was not a man to hide his obsession for a woman under a bushel, a fact that became a constant torment to his wife, and they were obsessions, not casual or even consummated affairs.

The most famous, of course, was his infatuation with Kamila Stösslová who became the muse for a number of his works, not that she actually cared, having little or no interest in his music. However, prior to meeting Stösslová, he was under the spell of another woman called Camilla Urválková whose voice he described as sounding like a viola d’amore, whom he met at the spa town of Luhačovice. At the time, Urválková was feeling betrayed by another composer, Ludvík Čelansky, who had written an opera called “Kamila” which she claimed was about her and which portrayed her in a bad light.

Janacek saw it as his duty to right this wrong, and immediately started on composing a new version of the opera which would present Urválková in a more positive manner. For a variety of reasons, however, the opera which he called “Osud” changed direction, and morphed into an autobiographical work with the composer himself, whom he named Živny, firmly at its center.

Real Life

The narrative essentially became a reflection upon the unhappy events of the composer’s life which he has fashioned into an opera, at least in Acts one and two.

The third act moves into the composer’s present, in which his students at the conservatory engage with Živny, who is their professor, about his opera’s unfinished state and its autobiographical content. Forced to confront the deep emotions of his past, it all becomes too much for him and he collapses, bringing the work to an ambiguous and anti-climatic end.

The libretto, written by Fedora Bartosov, has been and still is widely criticized, yet it does contain a number of well-crafted and dramatically intense scenes, not least the Act two exchanges between Živny and his wife Mila, and the ravings of his mother-in-law who despises him, in which the music is appropriately dramatic. Moreover, the score contains many delightful lyrical passages and engaging folk-themed melodies.

Nevertheless, “Osud” struggled to convince and despite numerous revisions over a period of almost 20 years was fated to disappoint Janacek, to the extent that it was never performed during his lifetime.

The first stage performance did not take place until 1958, and even then it was in a bowdlerized form. Today it is still largely ignored by opera companies, its libretto seen as dramatically unbalanced, its time frame convoluted and its conclusion unsatisfactory.

Opening the Festival

That “Osud” was chosen to open the Janacek Brno 2020 festival suggests that its Artistic Director Robert Carsen, who also directed the production, has faith in the work. In order to bring greater coherence to the work, he divided the role of Živny into two parts: the older Živny who is looking back over his life, and the young Živny, who in Acts one and two lives out his life as a memory of the older Živny.

Moreover, Carsen set the opera as an unambiguous representation of Janacek’s life, with both the younger and older composers looking convincingly like the composer.

Radu Boruzescu’s staging was designed to facilitate the idea that we are viewing the memories of the composer. The opera opened with the aging Živny sitting writing his opera at the piano in the conservatory where he worked, which morphed into the spa town in Act one and then into his apartment in Act two, although within the context of the conservatory environment, so that the present never completely disappears, with the old Živny walking around and interacting with his past, watching his younger self and the events of his opera unfold. In Act three the stage returns to the conservatory.

The costumes designed by Annemarie Woods were also used to reinforce the idea of memory, so that whereas in Act three the designs were bold and colorful, in the previous acts they were paler and less intrusive, reflecting the uncertainty of memory.

The overall effect of Carsen’s production was to improve the narrative’s coherence and to sharpen its dramatic focus, with the presentation of Živny as Janacek adding to the interest. Ultimately, however, the production was unable to compensate fully for the libretto’s flaws, its weak ending, in particular, allows the opera to end without any sense of closure, Živny stating, “Of the last act? That is in God’s hands and will remain there.”

Mixed Bag Musically

The musical side of the production was under the direction of Marka Ivanovic. He produced an energetic, clear and clean sound from the Janáčkovy Opera Orchestra, in which he beautifully captured the work’s folk-themed melodies and lyricism. He maintained a good balance between the orchestral sections and between the stage and the pit.

However, he was unable to fully exploit the dramatic nature of the score; by keeping too tight a rein on the dynamic contrasts the reading was at times too even, too flat.

As the role of the composer was divided into two parts it, therefore, required two singers. Philip Sheffield played the older Živny, whilst Enrico Casari was cast as the younger version. Both were made up with considerable skill to look like Janacek.

Sheffield certainly knows the ropes and produced a superb acting performance as Živny as he wandered through the narrative reacting to his younger self and trying to give shape to his memories in the first two acts, and then breaking down under the emotional weight of his past in the final act. His singing, however, was less successful; while knowing exactly what to do in order to characterize the role, his voice did not have the strength, especially in the upper register, to carry it off.

In Act three he is required to sing a series of monologues in which he reflects on the autobiographical role of Lensky in the opera he has written, before collapsing whilst a storm rages in the background. It is a demanding scene and crucial to the success of the production. Sheffield’s singing was very expressive, the vocal line was expertly crafted, but he demanded too much of himself and the voice lacked the necessary ballast, thinning quickly in the upper register, occasionally overwhelmed by the orchestra, and just did not possess the necessary weight to fully flesh out the melody. However, from a purely dramatic perspective, it added to the characterization by accentuating the age and weak condition of the composer.

Casari produced a passionate performance as the young Živny. He possesses a strong voice with an inviting timbre which he used intelligently to develop his character. In the first act, he muses over his past love for Mila in “Tak rad, tak rad,” in which he displayed his skill in mounding the vocal line, successfully depicting his intense feelings. But it was in the second act that he really let his passionate nature explode as in a state of distress and shame, verging on rage, he tears up the score of his opera and ends up standing on the piano with Mila crouching underneath, his voice enveloped with a mixture of regret and anger, rising with increasing passion until suddenly disturbed by the entrance of his young child, in what was a strongly staged scene.

Soprano Alžběta Poláčková made an excellent impression in the role of Mila Valková. She has a wonderfully versatile and well-supported voice which she employs with an excellent technique, something that was beautifully illustrated in her Act one lyrical monologue “Mne seznámili s váženym mužem,” in which she narrates what has happened to her since she last met Živny. Poláčková rendered the passage in fine detail, skillfully accenting and coloring the vocal line, paying close attention to the meaning of the text, and showing off her brilliantly clear upper register.

Act two allowed her to display her fine acting ability as she finds herself under severe pressure, not least from her own insane mother, in which she created a compelling portrait of a woman who is on the verge of collapse, her detailed singing and ability to develop her character once again impressing.

Her mother, Marka Milina, was essayed by mezzo-soprano Natascha Petrinsky. Although it is only a relatively small role, she captured the attention with a strongly defined performance. She was intolerant and full of anxiety in the first act, vicious and deranged in the second, her manic voice ringing out clearly, full of mockery and hatred for Živny, as she clasped her jewels in her hands, randomly arranging and rearranging her pearl necklaces, before grabbing hold of Mila and falling out of the window. It was a compelling portrait.

The cast contains many minor characters, two of whom in particular stood out. In the role of Konečny, and then later as the student Verva, was baritone Lukáš Barák. He possesses an attractive, strong, well-supported voice, full of character, which he used with skill, and was a delight to listen to. Soprano Marta Reichelovà also impressed with her bright piercing soprano in the role of the student Součková.

The Chorus of Janáčkovy Opera acted out and sang their part well, with the charming folksy choruses of Act one vibrantly and beautifully delivered.

This was an interesting and largely engaging production with some splendid singing, but ultimately even Carsen’s imaginative and skillful presentation was unable to fully overcome the dramatic flaws in the libretto.


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