Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Reviews

“Nessun Dorma — The Puccini Album”

Sounds swirl with an urgent emotionality and meandering virtuosity on Jonas Kaufmann’s new Puccini album—the “real one”, according to Kaufmann, whose works were also released earlier this year on Decca records, allegedly without his approval.

Verismo Double Header in Los Angeles

LA Opera got its season off to an auspicious beginning with starry revivals of Gianni Schicchi and Pagliacci.

Viva Verdi at Opera Las Vegas

On September 9, 2015, Opera Las Vegas presented James Sohre’s production of Viva Verdi at the Smith Center’s Cabaret Jazz. It was a delightful evening of arias, duets and ensembles by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). The program included many of the composer’s blockbuster arias and scenes from famous operas such as Aida, La traviata, and Macbeth.

Barbera Sings a Fascinating Recital in San Diego

On Saturday, September 19, San Diego Opera opened its 2015-2016 season with a recital by tenor René Barbera. This was the first Polly Puterbaugh Emerging Artist Award Recital and no artist could have been more deserving than the immensely talented Barbera.

Wigmore Hall Complete Schubert Song Series begins with Boesch and Johnson

The Wigmore Hall, London, has launched Schubert : The Complete Songs, a 40-concert series to run through the 2015 and 2016 seasons. There have been Schubert marathons before, like BBC Radio 3's all-Schubert week and The Oxford Lieder Festival's Schubert series last year, but the Wigmore Hall series will be a major landmark because the Wigmore Hall is the Wigmore Hall, the epitome of excellence.

Honegger: Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher

Marion Cotillard and Marc Soustrot bring the drama to the sweeping score of Arthur Honegger’s Jeanne dArc au bûcher, an adaptation of the Trial of Joan of Arc

Luisa Miller in San Francisco

Luisa Miller sits on the fringes of the repertory, and since its introduction into the modern repertory in the 1970’s it comes around every 15 or so years. Unfortunately this 2015 San Francisco occasion has not bothered to rethink this remarkable opera.

Salieri: La grotta di Trofonio (Trofonio’s Cave)

Demonised by Pushkin and Peter Shaffer, Antonio Salieri lives in the public imagination as the embittered rival of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — whose genius he lamented and revered in equal measure, and against whom he schemed and plotted at the Emperor Joseph II’s Viennese court.

Chicago Lyric’s Stars Shine at Millennium Park

The annual concert given by Lyric Opera of Chicago as an outdoor event previewing the forthcoming season took place on 11 September 2015 at Millennium Park.

Far in the Heavens — Choral Music of Stephen Paulus

Stephen Paulus provided the musical world, and particularly the choral world, with music both provocative and pleasing through a combination of lyricism and a modern-Romantic tonal palette.

Gluck: Orphée et Eurydice

Orpheus — that Greek hero whose songs could enchant both deities and beasts, whose lyre has become a metaphor for the power of music itself, and whose journey to the Underworld to rescue his wife, Eurydice, kick-started the art of opera in Mantua in 1607 — has been travelling far and wide around the UK in 2015.

Vaughan Williams and Holst Double Bill

One is a quasi-verbatim rendering of J.M. Synge’s bleak tale of a Donegal family’s fateful dependency on and submission to the deathly power of the sea.

Iestyn Davies at Wigmore Hall

Is there anything that countertenor Iestyn Davies cannot do with his voice?

Prom 75: The Dream of Gerontius

BBC Proms Youth Choir shines in a performance notable for its magical transparency

Prom 67: Bernstein — Stage and Screen

The John Wilson Orchestra have been annual summer visitors to the Royal Albert Hall since their Proms debut in 2009 and, with their seductive blend of technical precision, buoyant glitziness and relaxed insouciance, their concerts have become a hugely anticipated fixture and a sure highlight of the Promenade season.

Prom 65: Alice Coote sings Handel

Disappointing staging mars Alice Coote’s vibrant if wayward musical performance

Santa Fe: Secondary Mozart in First Rate Staging

Impresario Boris Goldovsky famously referred to La finta giardiniera as The Phony Farmerette.

Regimented Daughter in Santa Fe

At Santa Fe Opera, Donizetti’s effervescent The Daughter of the Regiment can’t quite decide what it wants to be when it grows up.

Santa Fe’s Celebratory Jester

Santa Fe Opera noted a landmark two-thousandth performance in their distinguished history with a stylish new production of Rigoletto.

Sibelius Kullervo, BBC Proms, London

Why did Jean Sibelius suppress Kullervo (Op7, 1892)? There are many theories why he didn't allow it to be heard after its initial performance, though he referred to it fondly in private.



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

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):