Janacek operas are getting deserved attention on record
The operas of Czech composer Leos Janacek are long overdue for scrutiny by our major opera houses. ''Jenufa'' and his final four creations - ''Katya Kabanova,'' ''The Cunning Little Vixen,'' ''The Makropulos Case,'' and ''From the House of the Dead'' - form an extraordinary body of masterworks. Yet, as of today only ''Jenufa'' has been done at the Metropolitan Opera. The New York City Opera tries to keep ''The Cunning Little Vixen'' in its repertoire, but ''Makropulos'' seems to have vanished. In San Francisco, ''Katya Kabanova'' will be given a production this season featuring Anja Silja and Evelyn Lear. But these are intermittent happenings, not frequent events.
All five operas by Janacek, who composed during the latter part of the 19th century and early in the 20th, involve some desperate search for meaning and value in a cruel, unrelenting world. ''Vixen'' is the cheeriest, almost a fairy tale, replete with talking animals and a kind Forester who learns to understand, rather than merely accept, the miracle of nature. But the other operas are all rather grim. ''Jenufa'' is a tragic tale of misguided love and child murder. ''Katya Kabanova,'' based on the Ostrovsky play ''The Thunderstorm,'' deals with social rigidity and intolerance as seen in the struggle between a woman who wishes to live for love and a mother-in-law who would sacrifice all personal happiness for social propriety.
''The Makropulos Case'' concerns Emilia Marty, who has lived nearly 300 years , thanks to a longevity potion. She has come back to Vienna to find the formula and leaves a willful trail of personal devastation behind her. ''From the House of the Dead,'' based on Dostoyevsky, is Janacek's bleak final work. There is one small female role; the rest involve inmates of a Siberian penal colony.
Through all this composer's operas, though, is woven a glimmer of hope. Even in ''House of the Dead,'' there is a sense of a world of freedom outside, and that knowledge allows the prisoners a shred of hope. In ''Jenufa,'' the heroine, falsely accused of murdering her illegitimate child, finds that her devoted suitor remains willing to accept her as his wife.
These plots are severe, as is Janacek's music. He favors a jagged, fragmented orchestral line that offsets the text rather than supports it. There are melodies, but they are brief. He is more interesting in sustaining moods fraught with passions, shifting viewpoints, and evanescent beauty. Janacek was fond of muted, wordless choral punctuations, and his use of them is consistently evocative and chilling.
This is a composer whose every phrase is stamped with his individual voice. The more one knows the music, the more he hears just how favored motifs and musical ideas have been colored to suit an amazing variety of emotional and dramatic moments. Each time, an essentially similar musical gesture takes on a different feeling, communicates a different sort of tension.
Fortunately, London Records has embarked on an ambitious Janacek opera cycle, with Sir Charles Mackerras conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. The four final works have now been recorded, most recently ''From the House of the Dead.'' Casting, with a mixture of Czechs and non-Czechs, has been uniformly magnificent.
If I have a favorite among the recordings it is ''The Makropulos Case'' (OSA- 12116), not just because I find the opera particularly rich dramatically and musically, but because in Elisabeth Soderstrom, Mackerras has a singer of uncommon communicative powers. She brings to Emilia Marty a fascinating presence , a distinctive, haunting voice, and extraordinary depth of characterization. The supporting cast features the legendary Czech tenor Beno Blachut and the rising Czech tenor Peter Dvorsky.
Miss Soderstrom sings the title role in ''Katya Kabanova'' (OSA 12109), and she projects this utterly different character with startling conviction. This opera takes longer to get to know than most of Janacek's works, yet the impact is devastating. The power of the piece is put forth stunningly by all involved, including Mr. Dvorsky and the compelling Nadezda Kniplova as the imperious mother-in-law.
Digital technology enhances ''Vixen'': the performance benefits noticeably from the unique clarity of London's digital sound (LDR-72010). This deceptively charming, even beautiful work offers more depth than a first listening might indicate. From the vocally ravishing Lucia Popp as the Vixen and Eva Randova as the Fox, through Dalibor Jedlicka as the Forester (or Gamekeeper), down to the various small vignette roles, this is a handsomely cast album, with vivid performances by all.
Finally, that most severe work, ''From the House of the Dead'' receives a profoundly moving reading from Mackerras (Digital LDR-10036). The cast is strong , and the performance sustains its bleak mood right through to the end, when a wounded eagle is released and the prisoners sing briefly of freedom. In that surge the opera - and Janacek's entire musical-dramatic ethic - reaches apotheosis. That it subsides into the grimness of servitude for the work's closing bars hardly erases the image of that one carefully conceived moment.
Rafael Kubelik showed New York audiences what a shattering experience this work could can be when he offered it in concert last season with the New York Philharmonic. Kubelik had restored the opera to its lean, ascetic grandeur, purging it of the romanticized corruptions perpetrated by well-meaning disciples after the composer's death (he lived barely two months after finishing it).
Kubelik has this music in every fiber of his being. And so does Mackerras, although one must wonder why he assigned the role of the young Alyeya to a soprano, for a woman's voice intrudes on the sound of the work. Kubelik rightly cast the role for tenor, which may have intruded on the composer's instructions, but was truer to the spirit of the work.
Nevertheless, Mackerras understands the harsh nature of Janacek's orchestral sound. He does not smooth out the rough edges; he does not try to gloss over the thorny textures; he does not try to fill in with lush sounds the arid nature of so much of the writing.
These pieces speak a universal language. This cycle - due to continue sometime later this year with ''Jenufa'' - is blazing testament to the strengths of those works.