Magazine article The Spectator

Jagged Lyricism

Magazine article The Spectator

Jagged Lyricism

Article excerpt

In his superb sequence of essays Testaments Betrayed, Milan Kundera returns frequently to Janacek, calling him `one of the two greatest artists ever to live in my native land', and praising him specially for discovering 'a new world for opera, the world of prose'. By 'prose' Kundera says he means `not only a form of discourse distinct from verse' but also `an aspect of reality, its daily, concrete, momentary aspect, and the opposite of myth'. Though he doesn't specifically discuss The Makropoulos Case, it possibly suits his argument better than any other of Janacek's serious operas, even From the House of the Dead.

Nothing, almost, would seem to be more unsettable to music than a drama revolving round the details, often exhaustingly intricate, of a legal battle about an inheritance, even though at the centre there is the figure of Elena herself, the wearily glamorous 337-year-young femme fatale. Yet well before she appears on the scene, or is even mentioned, the clerk Vitek is accompanied by a stream of Janacek's characteristically radiant music, as he fusses among the files. It seems as if Janacek is determined to transfigure (a word Kundera would surely dislike) the banal, and most audaciously of all the bureaucratic, with this endless effusion of jagged lyricism.

For long stretches of Makropoulos I wonder whether the music would not serve equally well, so loose seems the fit, for some quite different drama. Or rather the orchestral music; for as Kundera also points out, the vocal lines manifest a concern with the relationship between an emotion and its intonation in melody which is extraordinarily exacting. While the characters voice their feelings with a closeness to the curve of spoken expression which is unique, the orchestra carries on not so much coming to their aid with its eloquence as working out its own, separate dramas. Since Janacek's idiom is so piercing and so intense, the spectator/listener is offered a weird experience of two parallel lines of intensity, though these are parallels which at crucial moments meet before resuming their independent ways.

In an account of the score as emphatic as that at Glyndebourne's latest revival, with Peter Eotvos conducting with near-brutal upfrontness, the strange effort that attending to a mature Janacek opera requires is made clearer than I have ever known it. …

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