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Leoš Janáček
03 Sep 2008


Janáček’s music has already been well served in this year’s Proms in a memorable evening conducted by Boulez (reviewed on this site by Anne Ozorio).

Leoš Janáček: Osud [Fate]

Štefan Margita (Živný), Amanda Roocroft (Mila Válková), Rosalind Plowright (Mila’s Mother), Aleš Briscein (Dr Suda), Aleš Jenis (Lhotský/Verva), Owen Gilhooly (Konečný), Ailish Tynan (Miss Stuhlá), Martina Bauerová (Miss Pacovská/Součková); George Longworth (Doubek as a boy); BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jiří Bělohlavek (conductor).
Royal Albert Hall, London, 21 August 2008


On the present occasion, it was the phenomenal virtuoso composition that is Osud that was delivered with panache and confidence by Bělohlavek and his forces. Bělohlavek had clearly lavished much attention on the score, for passages that could so easily have become jumbled, such as the complex choral opening of the final act, were models of lucidity.

Sir Charles Mackerras brought Osud to the attention of non-Czech audiences with his 1989 ground-breaking English-language Chandos recording (CHAN3029). The story is a fascinating one, featuring three main protagonists. The composer Živný has a complex relationship, and a child, with Míla. At the opening of Act One, they are estranged, and Živný has begun to compose an opera in which he therapeutically attempts to write out his jealousies and frustrations; by the end of Act One, they have effected a reconciliation. The third major character is Míla’s mother, who descends into insanity in Act Two, an act that ends in a double tragedy. The third act centres on Živný’s attempts to finish his opera (due for imminent performance). Tragedy again strikes.

Janáček’s music includes the polar extremes of unbearably poignancy and the bright-sunshine, carefree life of the opening scene (the latter set on the promenade of a spa resort). The composer’s ability to effect quicksilver emotional changes in a fraction of the blink of an eye needs equivalent quicksilver responses from the orchestra, and Bělohlavek indeed ensured that his was the case. The opera lasts around the 80-minute mark, and yet is still split into three acts (called, ‘novelesque scenes’ — the breaks between these were minimal).

The soprano Amanda Roocroft, who took the essential role of Míla, was simply stunning, both visually and aurally. Her voice tone can be meltingly gorgeous, while always suggesting the youth and emotional impetuosity of her character. The (relatively) long eleventh scene of Act One is a duet between Mila and Živný, and despite Štefan Margita’s clear affinity with his role (he has actually recorded it), it was Roocroft who was the clear star. Still, Margita found a real vein of lyricism in the first scene of Act 2, coupling this with expert pitching and remarkably clean slurs.

Talking of stars, the name of Rosalind Plowright seems like a stellar blast from the past. Plowright has lost none of her hypnotic stage presence. Her voice could be huge, with a wobble that was more impressive than off-putting, a cutting edge that was never unpleasant and a delivery of the key word ‘Fatum’ that was positively spine-tingling.

There were other stars of the evening, too. Verva (baritone Aleš Jenis) gave a memorable imitation of a child’s voice, his inverted commas as he did so never in doubt, while Ailish Tynan as Miss Stuhlá confirmed the positive impressions she left after Gergiev’s Mahler Eighth Symphony at St Paul’s Cathedral recently. Aleš Briscein was a confident Dr Suda.

The chorus (BBC Singers) was impeccably drilled, as were the many soloists culled therefrom (eleven named parts, plus sundry schoolgirls and teachers).

The first part of the concert consisted of the complete set of Op. 46 Slavonic Dances by Dvořák. Infectious music, to be sure, but a sequence of eight dances in a row seemed a tad too much of a good thing, too many bon-bons in one sitting to be good for the digestion.

Colin Clarke

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