The week in classical: Jenůfa; West Wycombe Chamber Music Festival; The Midsummer Wedding | Classical music
A a vast effigy of a crow, omen of death, hangs over the sinful heroine. Silent women in black stand facing the wall, their Puritan caps giving them threatening and corvine profiles: a conspiracy seeking its human carrion. Janáček’s new production by Claus Guth Jenůfa, the Royal Opera’s first since 2001, designed by Michael Levine and his team, is not light on the symbol. He develops his themes with relentless and literal determination, rarely deviating from his trajectory to allow for nuance or subtlety. A workhouse-cum-asylum echoes a motherhood, each metal bed with its own vacant “cradle”. The beds become the cage in which Jenůfa must give birth illegally. The set has no windows. The shutters form the front curtain for each act. We can guess that in the end the fragile and central couple will come out of these shutters to face their future. They do.
Guth’s staging is so carefully constructed that it will devour or exclude you, surprise or leave you, if not cold – impossible with this heartbreaking 1904 score – at least neutral, eager to feel rather than watch. Some redemption comes in the last strong act, where the emotional ice finally cracks and chaos overwhelms. By contrast, Hungarian conductor Henrik Nánási sheds a brilliant and generous light on Janáček’s music, from the first nervous click of the xylophone to the radiant and major end, played by a formidably shaped ROH orchestra. The draw for this production, postponed from March 2020, is the cast, led by Asmik Grigorian in the title role, making her Royal Opera House debut, alongside Karita Mattila, once Jenůfa of the Royal Opera, now her adoptive mother, Kostelnička. With Saimir Pirgu and Nicky Spence as half-brothers Števa and Laca, and Elena Zilio – who made her opera debut in 1963 and is still in a sterling voice – as a grandmother, it’s all about incomparable programming, with a strong chorus and well-taken supporting roles. The wide open ensemble does not help the singers, who rise above the orchestra, but sometimes narrowly.
Grigorian, the Lithuanian soprano now in demand around the world, has a voice of steely beauty. Her Jenůfa is unknowable, controlled, even when she learns that she has lost both her child and her lover. Everything is under control until the last puzzling act, where passion pours out of her, a torrent of raw anguish. Mattila can still own the stage, graceful, intense, complex, turning moments of vocal inequality into a fierce dramatic goal. This revered star deserved his acclaim. The only performer who really broke away from Guth’s straitjacket to create a human, tender figure was Spence as Laca. At first a tyrant, he stands by Jenůfa’s side and, in a cloud of troubled and heart-wrenching confusion, ends up winning her over. Janáček’s masterpiece is waterproof, the music a miracle. Heavy production cannot crush it. Watch on ROH Stream starting Friday, October 15.
There is a small breed of elite international musicians who, far from the spotlight of the main stage, devote their energy to training young artists, promoting contemporary works, organizing daring and experimental festivals, often unnoticed by the whole world. West Wycombe Chamber Music Festival, directed by violist Lawrence Power, celebrated its 10th anniversary last weekend. The venue is St. Lawrence’s Church, isolated on a hill, with its crazy gold dome and close association with 18th-century local rake Sir Francis Dashwood and his friends at the Hellfire-club.
If the backstory is racy, the current holders, who for three days give concerts in the spectacular Egyptian-inspired interior of the church, are in their own way just as wild. Think how unlikely it is to find two of the greatest violists alive – Power with Brett Dean, a former Berlin Philharmonic violist, now primarily a composer – tuning together in the narthex of a rural English church, before giving a program of exceptional interest and quality. They were joined by two conductors from the Philharmonia Orchestra (violinist Annabelle Meare and double bassist Tim Gibbs) and John Myerscough, cellist from the Doric Quartet.
To start, Gibbs and Power shot Purcell’s Curtain Tune. – literally, a song written to be played while the curtain was raised or lowered – in a fiery flamenco-style vampire, before playing the poetic Memento for Viola and Double Bass (1983) by Hungarian-Swiss Sándor Veress. The centerpiece of the evening was Dean’s String Quintet Epitaphs (2010), written in memory of five deceased friends, including British conductor Richard Hickox. All melancholy – and Epitaphs is bouncy as well as sorrow – has been banished by the culminating work: Dvořák’s merry String Quintet, Op 77 for double bass and string quartet, performed in a glorious and smiling manner, brimming with melody.
Days after the festival ended, a local Buckinghamshire newspaper reported that St Lawrence’s, with annual running costs of £ 26,000, is under threat and could be shut down unless the community at large intervenes. A public meeting on its future will be held on Monday, October 11. . This is a call to arms, to save a vital festival as well as a precious Grade I listed building. More information here.
Impossible to be at the Royal Festival Hall for Michael Tippett’s The Midsummer Wedding, under the direction of Edward Gardner in his new role as Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, I listened on Radio 3, acknowledging the network’s renewed commitment to live relays. Thanks to Oliver Soden’s award-winning biography and more mellow mood, Tippett gets his due; not a moment too soon. This 1955 opera, with Toby Spence and Jennifer France at the helm of the cast, and great contributions from the London Philharmonic Choir and the English National Opera Choir, still sounds sprawling and verbally wacky. Still, the four ritual dances – three of which take up most of Act 2 – seemed more captivating than ever. As other music comes and goes, it stays on my Desert island listing. The LPO has started its new era in style.
Ratings (out of five)
West Wycombe Chamber Music Festival ??
The Midsummer Wedding ??
Jenůfa is at the Royal Opera House, London, until 12 October