Despite the unpredictability of the coronavirus situation, the Janáček Brno 2020 festival opened yesterday at the Janáček Theatre in Brno. The gala opening of the festival featured a premiere of the opera Destiny by Leoš Janáček directed by Robert Carsen, one of today's praised opera directors. In fact, Brno audiences had the opportunity to get acquainted with his directing visions of Janáček's operas already in the past; Carsen's concepts for The Makropulos Affair and Katya Kabanova rank among the best that have appeared on the stage of the National Theatre in Brno in recent years. However, the production of Destiny at this year's Janáček's festival is even more exceptional, as this time the director created it directly for the Brno opera house. The costumes were designed by Annemarie Woods, while the stage design was created by Radu Boruzescu. Philip Sheffield (old Živný) and Enrico Casari (young Živný) played the roles of the composer Živný; his fateful love Míla Válková was portrayed by Alžběta Poláčková and her mother by Natascha Petrinsky. Peter Račko performed the role of Dr. Suda, Jan Šťáva was the painter Lhotský and Lukáš Bařák gave his voice to the character of Konečný. The music production is the work of Marko Ivanović, who also conducted the premiere yesterday.Destiny is often described as a problematic opera with a confused story and an imperfect libretto.
The fact that the composer was not satisfied with the final version of the text was demonstrated by his pleas for help with reworking the libretto, addressed to writers, including names such as František Skácelík, and later on Jaroslav Kvapil. Although Janáček asked perhaps too hastily his late daughter Olga's girlfriend, the young poet Fedora Bartošová, to write the libretto, his further interventions and constant changes did not make her work on the text any easier. Janáček actually wanted Bartošová to prepare the opera libretto according to his own prosaic text, but the composer often modified it, added characters or removed them. Bartošová had no choice but to work on the go and with uncertain prospects for the final shape of the work. Although the story of Živný and Míla – behind which was hidden Janáček's eruption of love for Kamila Urválková (she is a precursor of the character of Míla) – is problematic for a number of reasons, there are productions that can make the wonderful and even astringently personal beauty of the opera rise to the surface.
Although the name of the world-famous director may evoke the idea of a grandiose show, Carsen in his directing, rather than being superficial, emphasises delicate work with the characters, their motivations and emotions. Also the scenography is therefore only a passive background, which frames the interpersonal action on the stage. The result is a rather more subtle drama without any artificial glitter. The visual impression here can therefore be, in the best sense of the word, almost the one of a drama. It was no different in the case of the production of Destiny – the stage design was created by the Romanian stage designer Radu Boruzescu and the costumes were designed by Annamarie Woods – both of which are realistic and match the style of the epoch. The creators were inspired by the spa atmosphere, so the primary venue of the opera is situated in a concert hall, which we could find on the colonnade of any spa town. Likewise, the costumes, dominated by bright suits with hats, were based directly on spa fashion. In the second and third acts, the scene remained virtually unchanged, only the spa suits were replaced by more civilian period fashion. In the second act, the hall on the stage was stripped of the auditorium to create a homely environment with a piano. Therefore, the director did not try to update the work in any manner, or transfer it to the present, but remained true to the original situation of the story. Realism, however, does nothing to detract anything from the initial festive atmosphere – the opening scene with the stage filled up with spa guests who are entertaining themselves, dancing and singing, is undoubtedly impressive.
An important part of Carsen's directing is also work with light, which he designed together with Peter van Praet. The full power of the lighting design is manifested especially in the scene, where Míla and Živný find themselves alone and the light blue colour of the approaching evening gives the space an atmosphere that is oppressive and intimate at the same time. In his productions, however, Carsen pays the greatest attention to the performances of the actors, and it was not different in Brno this time either. Nevertheless, the director prepared one fundamental change for Destiny – he divided the character of the composer Živný between two singers. His younger incarnation was portrayed by Enrico Casari, while Philip Sheffield gave the appearance and voice to Živný's actual grown-up figure. Therefore, with a single change, Carsen naturally managed to overarch the difference of seventeen years between the respective acts. Today's Živný remembers the long-gone years of his eruption of love as well as the fateful night when both his sweetheart and his mother died. The actors' performances are permeated with emotions, and especially both semblances of Živný's forms excel in their nearly self-destructive passion. As regards singing performances, this opera performance also had a lot to offer.
The excellent Alžběta Poláčková in the role of Míla was charming, mostly in the more lyrical passages of the second act, where she was also brilliant as an actress in the role of a fully loving partner and supporter of the opera's protagonist, despite being unhappy and afflicted by her past. Enrico Casari was strongest in those dramatic and fiery moments when Živný's sharp temper overcame his self-control. His very good diction and mastery of the difficult Czech language, which was practically unconditionally understandable in the singer's performance, also deserves praise. Philip Sheffield as the older Živný struggled to some extent with the pronunciation – although the beginnings of words and phrases were generally flawless, the middle parts of many words and sentences were not sufficiently articulated, and in some places he swallowed the whole words. As regards his singing, however, he delivered an energetic performance, which was most enchanting in the third act in particular, where he was naturally given the largest space. (As a matter of fact, both singers sometimes showed a certain rhythmic disconnection with the orchestra, which can probably be blamed on the unusual situation around various restrictions that undoubtedly made the rehearsing of the opera pretty complicated). Míla's mother, performed by Natascha Petrinsky, managed the difficult high pitches with clarity and confidence, although in some places at the cost of being less understandable. In a relatively short time, however, she was able to give credibility as well as a certain frightening unpredictability to the character of a woman afflicted with madness. Among the side roles it is necessary to highlight the bon vivant Jan Šťáva, who with his mighty bass presented himself as the painter Lhotský, while a no worse singing performance was delivered by Peter Račko with his Dr. Suda. The list of successful interpretations would not be complete without the great actor and singer Petr Hrůša in the role of the small and defenceless Doubek. The orchestra, conducted by Marko Ivanović (who also undertook the music production) was a firm support for the singers, and the conductor also managed to discover and bring to light many of Janáček's tender lyricisms. The solo violin passages of the concert master Lenka Kuželová were especially captivating, and Libor Kučera's cello solo was also no less emotional and expressively varied.
Carsen's directing was based on a subtle visual impression and high expressiveness and emotionality of the main characters – after all, this combination is more than favourable for Janáček's Destiny. Whether the listener and the viewer will appreciate the direction or not, will depend primarily on their taste. If they prefer this almost dramatic and mostly realistic (regardless of the memorial) character of the production, they will be more than satisfied with this opera. On the other hand, if they prefer a less realistic positioning of the story, they could dream of oscillating between the real world and fantasy. In any case, the new staging of the opera represents more than a satisfactory start to the Janáček Brno 2020 festival. Let's hope that additional similar productions are coming up.
Conductor: Marko Ivanović
Director: Robert Carsen
Editor: Ian Burton
Stage design: Radu Boruzescu
Costumes: Annemarie Woods
Lighting design: Peter van Praet and Robert Carsen
Choreography: Lorena Randi
Choirmaster: Pavel Koňárek
Assistant director: Gilles Rico
CHARACTERS AND CAST:
Živný, a composer: Enrico Casari & Philip Sheffield
Míla Válková: Alžběta Poláčková
Míla's mother: Natascha Petrinsky
Dr. Suda: Peter Račko
Lhotský, a painter: Jan Šťáva
Konečný: Lukáš Bařák
Miss Stuhlá, a teacher: Daniela Straková-Šedrlová
Doubek (as a child): Petr Hrůša
Poet: Michael Robotka
1st Lady / Miss Pacovská: Andrea Široká
2nd Lady / Mrs Majorová: Tereza Kyzlinková
Student: Michael Robotka
Old Slovak Woman: Jitka Zerhauová
Mrs Radová: Jana Hrochová
Young Widow: Hana Kopřivová
Engineer: Pavel Valenta
Verva, a student: Lukáš Bařák
Součková, a student: Marta Reichelová
Kosinská, a student: Jarmila Balážová
Doubek: Michael Robotka, Petr Stych
Cellar master: Martin Novotný
Hrázda: Ondřej Koplík
28 September 2020, Janáček Theatre