Friday, March 31, 2006


I see that there's a low-priced reissue of Charles Mackerras's first recording of Kát’a Kabanová by Leos Janácek. This is one of my favourite operas, though I'm not sure I can exactly explain why. All of Janácek's operas share his uncompromisingly strange approach to theatre writing. His vocal lines are mostly declamatory, mimicking the rhythms and patterns of the spoken Czech language; the declamation (with occasional bursts of lyricism at climactic moments) takes place over an orchestral tapestry of short, brusque, mock-folkish tunes, in a style that someone else described as "cubist Dvořák"; his orchestration is rough and gritty, and accentuates rhythm rather than sensual appeal -- his favourite instrument was the timpani and he lets the timpani carry the melodic/rhythmic interest at key points.

Somehow it all works amazingly well in Kát’a, an intense and unusually fast-paced tragedy. Janácek moves through everything so fast -- the whole opera, minus intermissions, takes only a little over an hour and a half -- and yet every character is fully fleshed out, and every brief moment counts for something. Take the end of scene 1: the ingenue (a mezzo rather than a soprano; in Slavic operas it was common for the "flighty" character to have a heavier voice than the "serious" character) tells off the heroine's drunken, mother-fixated husband, then soliloquizes about her own sympathy for the heroine, but can't shake the feeling that it's not any of her business. All this, with several changes of mood and one character leaving the stage, happens in under a minute; big mood shifts are accomplished with nothing more than an unexpected high note or a sudden, brief lyrical passage lasting a few bars. It's opera boiled down to its essence and stripped of anything non-essential.

The recording above was the first in a series of Janácek operas that Mackerras recorded in Vienna in the late '70s and early '80s; they were the first Janácek recordings to be made outside of the compoer's native country (and while most of the singers were Czech, the lead, Elizabeth Söderström, was a Swede who spoke Russian but not Czech, and learned the language phonetically), and they helped establish more of an international reputation not only for Janácek, but for Mackerras, who at that time was mostly known only in England.

The Leos Janácek website is an excellent introduction to the life and work of this composer, whose music sounds baffling at first and then becomes addictive.

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