Janacek Brno Festival 2022 Review: The Diary Of One Who Disappeared
Standout Performance From Iva Bittová In Janacek’s Song CycleBy Alan Neilson
(Photo: Festival Janacek Brno)
Janacek’s song cycle “The Diary of One Who Disappeared” is a regular inclusion at the Janacek Brno Festival. Yet such have been the variety of performances, they can often appear as very different works. At the 2020 festival, the cycle was presented as a staged work using Janáček’s own staging instructions, with Pavol Breslik in the lead role as the ploughboy. This year’s festival decided upon a concert performance with Jaroslav Brezina in the lead role. It was not, however, a standard presentation sung to Janáček’s original piano accompaniment. Instead, the score had been rearranged by Miloš Štedron and Miloš Orsona Štedron for a 17 piece ensemble, which gave the work a very different flavor.
Janáček compiled the cycle from a series of poems by an unknown writer that had been printed in his local newspaper. His name, which came to light many years after the composer’s death, was discovered to have been Ozef Kalda.
More Than Just A Simple Folktale
The “dairy” consists of 21 entries made by a ploughboy. It relates his story of a relationship with a gypsy girl, with whom he has fallen in love and meets every night in the woods. As the liaison is deemed totally unacceptable, he is forced to choose between his family and the gypsy girl. As a result, he abandons his family, his friends and community and disappears.
What appears to be a simple, romantic, rural tale of young love, drawing upon the folk roots of Moravia, is anything but simple. Rather, it is a portrait of the complex, conflicting emotions suffered by a young man who has stepped outside the normal codes of behaviour. Not only does he have to face the painful consequences of a love considered unacceptable, in which he is rejected by his mother, father, and sister, but he is also forced to fight against his own prejudices.
It is, therefore, a text which draws back a veil on early 20th century rural Moravian society, exposing the deep prejudices it held towards gypsies and their way of life. The poems are littered with romantic, often negative, stereotypes, with allusions to the gypsy girl’s free and wild ways, to her magical powers used to entrap and seduce, and even to her thieving nature.
With its strong emotions and clear narrative, it is a text perfectly designed for a musical setting.
Janáček set each “diary” entry to music as a separate song, three of which are in the form of a dialogue between the ploughboy and the gypsy girl. There is also a small part for a small women’s chorus. The music is often unsettling, even haunting, reflecting the text’s strong emotional cross currents and psychological depths, but there are also passages of calm, of reflection, and of melancholy. It is certainly a work to test the interpretative abilities of the tenor.
A Well-Balanced Program
Lasting around 40 minutes, “The Diary of One Who Disappeared” is unable to make for a complete concert program. So, for this presentation, it was accompanied by nine Janáček miniatures and a piece entitled “Nezabudka,” written for male and female voices with piano by Iva Bittová.
The concert opened with Miloš Štedron’s contemporary arrangements of nine Janáček miniatures. The short pieces, which date from around 1887 to less than a week before his death in 1928, were mainly folk-inspired, containing the rhythms, melodies and dances from the songs of the local peasantry. It proved to be a pleasing compendium that moved rapidly between slow, plaintive works such as ”In Memorium,” playful dance music such as “Small Saws,” and rhythmically captivating pieces exemplified by “Enigma.” Janáček’s final completed composition, “I am waiting for you,” written about his unrequited love for his muse, Kamila Stösslová, was given a beautifully gentle rendition that captured the piece’s tender sensibilities.
“Nezabudka,” which translates as “Forget Me Not,” is a duet for mezzosprano and tenor and was performed by the composer herself, Iva Bittová, and Martin Prokeš. Based upon the folk lyrics and vocal patterns of the region, it fitted neatly into the program which was centered on Janáček’s folk-inspired compositions.
It is a piece that lies easily on the ear, with clear melodies reminiscent of the gypsy tradition. The parts for the voice were fairly simple, although they became more complex when they were singing simultaneously.
Prokeš sang his part well, producing a sweet, lyrical rendition that showed off his attractive phrasing and appealing timbre.
Bittová had an altogether different approach. She became one with the music as she submerged herself into her character. Her singing was emotionally intense, lively, and seductive, which she supported with her animated physical movement. She dominated the stage.
The Ploughboy Is Overshadowed
Štedron and Štedron’s arrangement of “The Diary of One Who Disappeared” for the Brno Contemporary Orchestra was pleasingly crafted. Without ever undermining Janáček’s voice, they produced an effective score that successfully captured the emotions and psychological nature of the ploughboy while coherently carrying the narrative. Pavel Snajdr, the conductor, elicited an interesting array of textures and remained true to the sensitivities of Janáček’s original piano score. It was an enterprise that proved to be both pleasing and worthwhile.
The tenor Jaroslav Brezina sang the role of the ploughboy but produced an inconsistent performance. He possesses an attractive, versatile voice with a pleasing upper register. Unfortunately, he failed to capture the ploughboy’s nuanced emotions. His singing was correct in a workmanlike way, but there was no real connection with the character; he did not live the role. Moreover, he did not appear to be at ease. He was wiping his brow frequently and even rolled up his sleeves midway through the performance. As his discomfort increased, his singing started to become more forced and less flexible. Dynamic contrasts became leaden and awkward. In the final bars, his voice cracked completely. Nevertheless, he managed to get through the evening and, for the most part, he sang reasonably well.
Two days later, he performed the role of Tichon onstage in a performance of “Katya Kabanová” and was excellent. It was clearly an off night.
No such problems for Bittová, who was singing the part of the gypsy. From the moment she set foot into the spotlights, she was the gypsy girl! Moving her body seductively as she moved about the stage, she lived the part. Her singing performance was equally expressive; infusing her voice with a beguiling range of colors and nuanced accents, she sang with a folksy lilt, and it worked exceptionally well. Although she played a far smaller part than the ploughboy, she stole the show.
Iva Táborská, Veronika Slavičková and Tereza Krejčí who made up the small female choir, sang well, creating clear, expressively crafted harmonies.
Overall, this was an excellent concert that had been carefully and imaginatively programed. Although Iva Bittová was undoubtedly the highlight, it was a fine performance from all involved, including Brezina, who sang well enough for the most part and ploughed on manfully until the end.