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19.5.05

Makropoulos Affair in Lyon

Over the weekend, I heard part of a great broadcast of Leoš Janáček's marvelous opera From the House of the Dead, in a production from the Grand Théâtre de Genève, in Switzerland. This program came my way from WBJC, my only public radio station these days. I came across it in the car, and since I cannot get the station (which is in Baltimore) inside my house, I sat for a while in the car listening. (Again, I would really like to express my gratitude to WETA for abandoning their cultural principles. I like the interior of my car, I really do.) It turns out that this is part of a feature on a few public radio stations called the European Opera Series (from WFMT and not widely distributed, even less perhaps than World of Opera, which I would love to listen to but cannot here). The production featured Jiri Belohlavek conducting the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Peter Mikulas (Goriantchikov), Stéphanie Novacek (Aljeja), and Stefan Margita (Filka Morozov). It sounded great.

The broadcast reminded me that I had a couple of reviews to mention of recent Janáček productions in France. First, there is the Nikolaus Lehnhoff production of Vec Makropulos (1926), brought from Glyndebourne as part of the Janáček Festival at the Opéra de Lyon, along with Jenůfa and Kát'a Kabanová. Marie-Aude Roux has an article on the composer (Leos Janacek, l'orchestration sauvage de la voix, May 10) for Le Monde (my translation):

"I made reference several times to the music of Leoš Janáček. He is well known in England and Germany, but in France? In other Mediterranean countries?" Formulated in 1992 in Les Testaments trahis, does Milan Kundera's question still deserve to be asked?
She also published an interview with soprano Anja Silja, who is singing the role of Emilia Marty ("Être l'incarnation absolue d'un personnage, corps et âme", May 10) also in Le Monde (my translation):
This month at the Opéra de Lyon, you are singing two of Janáček's greatest roles: the infanticide Kostelnicka in Jenůfa and especially the inhuman singer, Emilia Marty, in The Makropoulos Affair. Did Janáček choose you or did you choose Janáček?

I have always been interested by strong and dramatically characterized roles. So Janáček chose me! The Makropoulos Affair was the first one I sang, in Stuttgart in 1970. I was 30 years old, and I performed it in German, as was the practice at the time. Later, in the 1970s, I tried Kát'a Kabanová, which I have not sung much. Jenůfa came along much later. I was 47, it was in Brussels, in 1987. Kostelnicka and Emilia Marty remained among the most important roles in my repertoire, so I also chose Janáček.

In your 1999 biography, you explained how much The Makropoulos Affair means to you. Why?

When I began singing it 35 years ago, I thought that Emilia Marty was a capricious, heartless diva. With time, I realized that she was instead a hypersensitive artist, a wounded woman, who has lived too long fearing death. The events of my own life obliged me to see things as they are. When you get older, you lose your friends, your loves. I know of what I speak: in 1966 and 1967, I lived through the loss of two men I loved, the director Wieland Wagner and the conductor André Cluytens. Emilia Marty became the identifying role of my life.
The Makropoulos Affair will be in Lyon through June 5. At the same time the Opéra National de Paris is staging Janáček's From the House of the Dead (premiered in 1930), at the Bastille. An article (Marc Albrecht : «Janacek ? Un moderne classique», May 9) by Jean-Louis Validire for Le Figaro has an interview with Marc Albrecht, the German conductor who has been director of the Darmstadt Oper for six years. The production by Klaus Michael Grüber was first presented at the Salzburg Festival in 1992. Jose van Dam is singing the role of Gorianchikov. Here's an excerpt (my translation):
Is From the House of the Dead opera or sung theater?

Janáček wrote the libretto while reading Dostoevsky's original Russian text [Memoirs from the House of the Dead]. But he did not translate it literally. He improvised the music from the feelings he had and then he reintroduced the text. It's a very modern way to compose. For me, it feels like the way one edits a film. [...]

Is it a big change for you to switch from Wagner to Janáček?

In fact, Wagner is very close musically. Because of him I became interested in opera. Of course, it is difficult to compare them, but it is only with Janáček and Alban Berg that I felt the same emotion. Wozzeck and From the House of the Dead are also practically contemporary with one another. In these two works, we find profoundly human sentiments. This is particularly true in Janáček's opera, where all the characters have, deep within them, a spark of hope, in God or something else, that no crime can efface. [...]

You are going to become musical director of the Orchestre de Strasbourg. What are your plans?

First, I am going to take a sabbatical half-year to reflect. I want to develop the interpretatio of music of our time, with a Berg cycle and also contemporary French music. But my goal is always to stay in touch with the audience, without scaring it away. Strasbourg will be an interesting experience because it is a frontier city between two cultures, and that will allow me to play more French music.
Marie-Aude Roux reviewed the production (Les morts-vivants de Janacek, prisonniers de leurs crimes dans un décor de conte, May 19) for Le Monde (my translation):
"In each creature, a spark of God": Janáček's inscription on the front page of his last opera, From the House of the Dead, is one of hope. At 72 years old, in 1926, the Czech composer took up Dostoevsky's autobiographical narrative, Memoirs from the House of the Dead, written in 1851 by the Russian writer after four years spent in a Russian labor camp. Janáček's faith in humanity had first touched women like Jenůfa, Kát'a Kabanová, Elina Makropoulos, and the Cunning Little Vixen. The moralist's final work rejoined those condemned of the earth, carriers of "incontestable signs of an extremely vivid spirituality," whose stain is a witness of grace.
She didn't have much to say about the singing or the production. Other than Jose van Dam, whose voice I love, the production also features as Alieia soprano Gaële Le Roi, whom I heard sing with Opera Lafayette here in Washington this February. From the House of the Dead will be in Paris through June 12.

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