Magazine article The Spectator

Love and Betrayal

Magazine article The Spectator

Love and Betrayal

Article excerpt

Welsh National Opera is taking on tour three very meaty works, all centrally concerned with passionate love, betrayal and a ghastly end for the characters we care most about. Janacek, as always, refuses the consolations of tragedy and finishes in a strangely upbeat mode, in Jenufa. Puccini gives us his most unmitigatedly harrowing conclusion, in Madama Butterfly. And in Un Ballo in Maschera Verdi writes his most perfect though not his greatest opera, with the harrowing death of the hero accompanied by elegant dance music. In the exquisite auditorium of the Grand Theatre in Swansea, broad and shallow, in fact a small theatre, the impact of each of these works could be, and in the case of two of them was, immediate sometimes to a physically painful degree.

The only new production of the three is Jenufa, which has won thoroughly deserved acclaim from all who have seen it. At the centre is the grandly realised figure of the Kostelnicka, taken by Suzanne Murphy, who gives so intensely felt and perfectly expressed a performance, both vocally and dramatically, that it will surely give her the international stardom that is her due - especially since a couple of nights later she was singing the same role at the Staatsoper Berlin, as a last minute replacement. This role can take a variety of interpretations; Anja Silja's, the last tremendous one I saw, was quite unlike Murphy's. Silja was a commanding figure who crumbled under the shameful revelations of Act II. Murphy managed the more remarkable feat of being a bundle of nerves from the start, someone who was just waiting for the worst to happen to justify her terrible tension, and who snapped as soon as it did. Her acting was so vivid that it is a miracle it didn't seem hammy. Perhaps the reason was the extreme degree of taut, searing lyricism which Daniel Harding secured from the orchestra throughout.

Everything in Janacek's score was on display, including the not infrequent relics of immaturity the score contains, routine accompaniments and traces of 'arias'. The jagged ferocity of feeling which is his music's hallmark only serves to show, in this opera, the hyperactive inner life of his characters, whose 'operatic' repeating of words and melodies is more of a nervous tic than a way of organising their material. Indeed, Janacek doesn't want their material to be organised, since that would suggest a degree of composure which they lack, and which he would be suspicious of: spontaneity, and thus genuineness, of emotion can have no truck with form, and in that respect Janacek is giving in this opera his earliest expression to his loathing of the falsehoods of civilised existence. If there is a debt to Mascagni, as there surely is, it is to Mascagni transfigured. Italian peasants delight in going over the top, since it enables them to make such gorgeous noises. The tortures of life wring from Janacek's marvellous creations sounds which may occasionally be similar, but are used to wholly different ends. That came across with unparalleled force in this performance. Without upstaging the other singers, Murphy dwarfed them, as her part dwarfs the others in the drama. They were all adequate, though the half-brothers could do with looking a lot more romantic. Nigel Robson's Laca appeared so like Bruckner that he was almost a tragi-comic creation. …

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