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Kristin Sampson as Sarka [Photo by James Martindale]
05 Mar 2009

Janáček's Šárka at Dicapo Opera

There is a visceral pleasure in hearing so many healthy sets of young lungs tearing into this music, and they do sing, they do not bellow.

Leoš Janácek: Šárka

Šárka: Kristin Sampson; Ctirad: Erik Nelson Werner; Přemysl: Zarab Ninua; Lumir: Sanjay Merchant. Conducted by Oliver Gooch. Dicapo Opera Theatre, performance of February 19.

Above: Kristin Sampson as Šárka [Photo by James Martindale]


Wagner made folklore respectable on the lyric stage, and after the premiere of the Ring in 1876, every nationality in Europe (many of them not legal nations yet) aspired to a national music, including a national opera based on all-but-forgotten national legend or quasi-historical incident. To this efflorescence belong Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas of Slavic myth, such as The Invisible City of Kitezh and Snegouroutchka, Sibelius’s tone poems from the Kalevala (he never risked an opera), Rutland Boughton’s operas of Irish myth, and a whole school of Czech operas, beginning with Smetana’s Libuše, an operatic treatment of the prophetess who founded Prague and (with her husband, Přesmysl), the first Czech dynasty, the Přemyslids. The Přemyslids were looking mighty good to the Czechs after three hundred years of the Germanic Habsburgs.

Those who know Libuše (or who have pondered the murals depicting it on the walls of Prague’s National Theater) may be curious about its sequels, for the legend goes on, as legends will. Janáček’s first opera, Šárka (1887-8), some fifteen years before Jenufa, concerns the attempt of an army of Czech Amazons to seize power after Queen Libuše’s death, and their ultimate defeat by the patriarchal Přemysl. Šárka, a warrior maiden, seduces the doughty Ctirad when he is sent to capture magic weapons and destroy her; she lures him to his destruction, then kills herself in remorse - surefire operatic material, with bits of Dalila, Odabella, Brunnhilde and Armida. It’s a bit stagy, though. Janáček was not at his best dealing with legendary archetypes - his gift was for transforming ordinary people (or ordinary foxes, like his Vixen Sharpears) into such archetypes. But in 1887, he didn’t know that yet, and neither did anyone else - mythic opera was the fashionable thing. (It is curious how few of those dozens of expertly written, proto-Wagnerian legendary operas do endure in today’s repertory. Hansel und Gretel may be the only genuinely popular successor the Ring ever had.)

The reason one wants to hear Šárka, of course, is to study the roots of the later, greater operas of this highly original master, little known in his own time but an international favorite now. Certainly the orchestration is skillful if rumbustious (cut down for the Dicapo forces and not as tight on opening night as it will no doubt become by the last), and the singing is mostly declamation following the rhythms of the Czech libretto - a translation might have dissipated the effect (though I have heard superb English-language performances of other Janáček operas). The result is indubitably nationalistic and gives distinctive shape to Janáček’s melodies, as idiosyncratic within the western idiom as all those damned Czech diacriticals are to spelling names like Šárka and Janáček in the Roman alphabet. Indeed, to the composer’s great discouragement, it took a generation for the (usually German-speaking) masters of music in the Czech lands to agree to present his operas at all and another for the works to begin to catch on internationally.

The reason not to hear Šárka too often, though, is that Janáček’s skill lay in the humanity he found, and made musically real to us, even in such startling figures as the desperate Kostelnička in Jenufa and the haunted Elena Makropoulos. Such feeling is not to be found in Šárka’s mythic characters, despite their proclamation of mighty emotion. They do not live in our world and share our emotions - therefore their sensations and deeds do not shatter us, as Kostelnička’s and Elena’s do. Janáček’s genius (to which his musical skills were the brilliant partner) lay in making ordinary emotions mythic - not in making mythic figures human, Wagner’s specialty. It is no accident that the greatest emotional catharsis in Janáček is the arrival of the police to arrest Kostelnička: so ordinary, so real, with resonance beyond any daily event, illustrated in music that peaks just as the drama does.

One may sense some of Jenufa’s self-knowledge and resignation in Šárka’s final aria of renunciation, but Jenufa’s wisdom, her vision of hope beyond despair, is too human for Šárka - both the woman and the opera. Kristin Sampson sang and acted the role powerfully; the music lacked the punch in the guts of a good Jenufa, but it was hardly for want of melodrama. (Like Dicapo, I’ve always pictured Amazon warriors in scarlet tea gowns with spike-heeled boots, haven’t you?) All four solo singers were extraordinary - at least in the confines of the intimate but handsome theater in the basement of St. Jean Baptiste Church on 76th Street and Lexington Avenue - but, not knowing the work, it was impossible to tell if the unsubtle force of all four was required by the composer or their Wagnerian response to the legends on offer. There is a visceral pleasure in hearing so many healthy sets of young lungs tearing into this music, and they sing, they do not bellow - but in later Janáček operas, soft singing for softer emotions tends to be part of the emotional palette.

The production cleverly makes use of projections, lighting effects and screens, for example, to show Ctirad invading a spooky tomb to carry off magical weapons, or to permit the Amazons to burn their suicidal queen before our eyes, but I found the prevailing Japanese motifs a little difficult to parse - my guess is the designer found it easier to get samurai swords than barbarian maces in New York costume shops. There was quite a variety of edged utensil on view, but barbarian warriors no doubt make do with whatever is loose about the kitchen.

Performances continue through March 4. Check the Dicapo Opera Theatre Web site for details.

John Yohalem

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