Operas about strife, strength and survival

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Operas about strife, strength and survival
In an undated image provided by ROH, photo by Lara Cappelli, the director Tobias Kratzer, right, in rehearsal for “Fidelio.” At the Royal Opera House, Kratzer wants to tap into the spirit of Beethoven with a fresh production of “Fidelio” in a year of celebrations that mark 250 years since the composer’s birth. ROH, photo by Lara Cappelli via The New York Times.

by Rebecca Schmid

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- For the first time in company history, the Royal Opera is mounting a cycle devoted to Czech composer Leos Janacek. Following “From the House of the Dead” — presented in its house premiere two seasons ago — and “Katya Kabanova” last year, “Jenufa” takes the stage from March 24 to April 9 in a Claus Guth production. The annual series continues until 2022.

Oliver Mears, the director of opera, called the initiative “long overdue.” “Any serious international opera house has to have Janacek in their repertory,” he said.

While “Jenufa” was performed as early as 1956, “The Makropulos Affair” will be presented for the first time at the Royal Opera.

Janacek ranks among the most widely performed 20th-century opera composers, not least thanks to Australian conductor Charles Mackeras. The conductor played a pioneering role in 1950s London at the Sadler’s Wells Theater (now English National Opera) and, internationally, with a recording series on the Decca label. But while the English National Opera has a tradition of performing in English translation, the Royal Opera is presenting all Janacek’s operas in the original Czech.

Mears pointed to the theatrical immediacy of operas as one reason for their appeal. “Janacek is often bracketed as difficult modernism,” he said. “In some ways, it’s the opposite. This is a man who really understood theater and connected with character.”

Not unlike Bela Bartok in his native Hungary, Janacek absorbed the folk melodies and — starting with “Jenufa,” his first successful opera — speech patterns from the region of Moravia. With the exception of “From the House of the Dead,” in which the chorus of male prisoners takes center stage, his late operas revolve around tortured heroines. These characters may represent various phases of the composer’s real-life affection for Kamila Stosslova, a married woman more than three decades his junior.

But there are also parallels between the earlier “Jenufa” and “Katya Kabanova,” in which both title characters find themselves thwarted by repressive societies. Katya drowns herself once it becomes clear that she cannot escape a loveless marriage and provincial town life to be with her lover, Boris; Jenufa swallows her pride and agrees to settle down with the enamored but abusive Laca after her stepmother has murdered her child.

For Mears, these characters are nevertheless “strong, charismatic, virile people” who “represent a break with the past,” not least with regard to “operatic convention and cliché.” “They are put in situations that are intolerable by any measure,” he said, “and yet somehow despite the horrific things that happen to Jenufa, she manages to survive.”

The title role of the new “Jenufa” production features the London debut of rising star soprano Asmik Grigorian, who became an overnight sensation at the Salzburg Festival two summers ago. Mears expects her to bring an “intuitive response” to the character. “She combines extraordinary vocal talent with a rich psychological instinct and a stage charisma which is very, very thrilling for the audience,” he said.

The cycle’s stage aesthetic, meanwhile, takes a step away from the naturalistic approach that has a long tradition in Janacek and that Mears said “can lead to rather clunky set designs.” Guth is collaborating with designer Michael Levine for the first time.

But Mears was reluctant to distinguish between a “traditional” or “Regietheater” aesthetic, emphasizing “the quality of the practitioners, their imagination and rigor, which speaks to as many people as possible.” He pointed to the “machinelike quality of the chorus and society which enfolds Jenufa” in Guth’s hands.

“It’s that tension between these strong female characters and the society in which they live — in particular the demands that men put on those characters — which provides these pieces with their electricity,” he said.

And yet despite the preoccupation with human cruelty in Janacek, Mears emphasized that “even in his darkest operas like ‘House of the Dead,’ there is a hint of redemption. These are not at all relentlessly gloomy pieces. There’s an enormous amount of light and shade.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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