25 August 2015

CD REVIEW: Musical Czech Mates – Antonín Dvořák’s ALFRED on Arco Diva (UP 0140-2 612) and Leoš Janáček’s JENŮFA on Oehms Classics (OC 962)

CD REVIEW: Antonín Dvořák's ALFRED on Arco Diva (UP 0140-2 612) and Leoš Janáček's JENŮFA on Oehms Classics (OC 962)[1] ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK (1841 – 1904): Alfred, B. 16Felix Rumpf (Alfred), Petra Froese (Alvina), Ferdinand von Bothmer (Harald), Jörg Sabrowski (Gothron), Peter Mikuláś (Sieward), Tilmann Unger (Bote, Dorset), Jarmila Baxová (Rowena); Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno; Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra; Heiko Mathias Förster, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in concert in Dvořák Hall, Rudolfínum, Prague, Czech Republic, during the Dvořák Prague Festival, 16 – 17 September 2014; Arco Diva UP 0140-2 612; 2 CDs, 125:21; Available from Arco Diva, ClassicsOnline HD, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

[2] LEOŠ JANÁČEK (1854 – 1928): Jenůfa (Její pastorkyňa), JW I/4Gal James (Jenůfa), Iris Vermillion (Kostelnička Buryjovka), Dunja Vejzović (Stařenka Buryjovka), Aleš Briscein (Laca Klemeň), Taylan Reinhard (Števa Buryja), David McShane (Stárek), Konstantin Sfiris (Rychtář), Stefanie Hierlmeier (Rychtářka), Tatjana Miyus (Karolka), Fran Lubahn (Pastuchyňa), Xiaoyi Xu (Barena), Nazanin Ezazi (Jano), Hana Batinić (Tetka, Hlas), István Szécsi (Hlas); Fuyu Iwaki, violin solo; Chor und Singschul’ der Oper Graz; Grazer Philharmonisches Orchester; Dirk Kaftan, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during staged performances at Oper Graz, Graz, Austria, 7, 17, 21 – 22 May 2014; Oehms Classics OC 962; 2 CDs, 126:58; Available from Oehms Classics, ClassicsOnline HD, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Anyone who has visited the Czech Republic or Slovakia in the years since the Iron Curtain was torn asunder can attest to the extraordinary pride these nations have in their cultural heritages. Consigned for centuries to biding their time as forced citizens of other nations and empires, the Czech and Slovak people maintained sharply-defined identities, remaining Bohemians, Moravians, and other distinct socio-ethnic societies even when their loyalties were involuntarily directed southward to Vienna or eastward to Moscow. The collective cultural legacy of the Czechoslovak nations is nowhere more vibrantly enshrined than in the region's music. Whether in the indigenous folk tunes of these intoxicating lands or in the music of their Classically-trained composers, the hearts of the Czech Republic and Slovakia beat in time with the musical expressions of the profound history and humanity of the people. Two operas could hardly be more different in scale, subject, and substance than Dvořák's Alfred and Janáček's Jenůfa, but the scores share the authentic spirit of a common cultural ancestry. One a product of its composer's artistic adolescence and the other one of the great masterpieces of its genre, both of these works embody the enterprising, unflappable soul of people whose determination has sustained them through horrors and hardships, from generations of decreed assimilation unto a new millennium in which hopes for autonomy have been realized in the thriving Czech Republic and Slovakia of the Twenty-First Century.

Antonín Dvořák's 'Heroische Oper in drei Aufzügen' Alfred dates from the period in the ​twenty-nine-year-old​ composer's creative development during which, probably by equal parts design and default, he was an earnest Wagnerian. The score contains occasional foreshadows of Jakobín and Rusalka but mostly breathes the air of Lohengrin and Tannhäuser. Already, though, Dvořák's gifts for colorful orchestration are apparent in Alfred, not least in the atmospheric Tragic Overture that prefaces the opera and in the grand choral scenes that frame the action, particularly the stirring Morgengesang in Act Three. Composed in 18​70 to a German libretto by Karl Theodor Körner that had already been set by Friedrich von Flotow​, Alfred was ​neither ​performed ​nor published ​during Dvořák's lifetime​: the piece was not heard until 1938, when it was performed in a Czech translation in Olomouc. In fact, the September 2014 Dvořák Prague Festival concert in Dvořák Hall—as apt a venue as exists for the occasion—in the beautiful Rudolfínum was the first known performance of the opera in the original German. This expertly-engineered recording reveals few indications of its 'live' provenance, but it reveals much about the young Dvořák's compositional evolution, influenced as much by Bayreuth as by his native Bohemia.

In truth, none of the young cast in the concert performance recorded b​y Arco Diva​ are ideally-suited to their parts: the titular King of Wessex requires a burly baritone of the Telramund variety, the Viking warlord Harald is tailor-made for a capable Lohengrin, and the music for the long-suffering ​Alvina​ cries out for a young Ingrid Bjöner, Rita Hunter, or, most appropriately, Naděžda Kniplová. Under the thoughtfully-wielded baton of Heiko Mathias Förster​, the performance by the Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno​ and Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra​ nonetheless provides great enjoyment and plentiful moments in which glimmers of Dvořák's operatic future appear in the sometimes ostentatious orchestrations. At this early stage in his career, Dvořák did not yet possess the skills as a manager of orchestral balances that he would eventually display in his Symphonies or the command of choral writing that characterizes his 1877 Stabat mater. Still, there are numerous challenges for instrumentalists and choristers, and they are here met unflinchingly. Förster's pacing of the performance benefits from what might rather paradoxically be termed a measured impetuosity: there is ample but never excessive thrust, and Dvořák's Wagnerian inclinations are indulged without Alfred being made to sound like a child-sized Parsifal. Förster supports the principals without ignoring the demands made on the chorus and orchestra, and, were the performance blessed with a cast more triumphant than merely competent, the endeavors of conductor, choir, and orchestra would honor Dvořák with a near-perfect recreation of his first outing as a composer of opera.

Singing the small rôle of​ Rowena, soprano Jarmila Baxová​ discloses a voice of charm and allure and a technique little challenged by her music. First appearing as the Bote in Act One, tenor Tilmann Unger negotiates 'Ja Herr! Er traf mit seiner sieggewohnten Scharr auf Alfreds Heer' effectively, and he delivers 'Vergebens, gestrenger Gebieter, ward Alvina im Thurme bewacht' in the Act Two finale robustly. In Act Three, he transitions from the Bote to Dorset and insightfully interacts with his colleagues, especially in his scene with Alvina. Baxová's and Unger's work is matched by that of veteran Slovak bass Peter Mikuláš, who depicts Sieward with vitality that compensates for what the voice lacks in steadiness. He convincingly makes his mark in Act Two with a stentorian utterance of 'O, muß ich ihm das Gräßliche verkünden!' and alert, attentive singing in the trio with Alvina and Alfred.

As the figureheads of the invading Viking hordes, baritone Jörg Sabrowski and tenor Ferdinand von Bothmer are slyly-contrasted presences as Gothron and Harald. Much of the credit for the differentiation is owed to Dvořák. Köthner's libretto puts little flesh on the characters' bones, but, though certainly not the equals of Rusalka's Ježibaba and Vodník, the composer granted each man a distinct musical profile. Sabrowski sings Gothron's music expansively, commandeering attention in Act One with his volatile traversal of 'Im Siegestaumel schweldt das Volk.' Though a darker, more imposing sound would be welcome in Gothron's lines, more of Sabrowski's singing would also be heard with gratitude. Von Bothmer's Harald is a petulant, short-fused despot whose desire for Alvina seems inspired more by a lust for depriving Alfred of her company than by actually wishing to possess her himself. Sung by von Bothmer with slimy insouciance, Harald is here a perverse manipulator in the fashion of Richard Strauss's Herodes and Aegisth. In Act One, von Bothmer intones 'Das war ein blut'ges Tagwerk, Kampfgenossen!' persuasively, and in the Schlachtlied he shapes 'Das Los des Kampfes ist gefallen' and 'Speere blinken, Krieger sinken' with the immediacy of a man whose natural habitat is the battlefield. He is more Monostatos than Tamino in Harald's duet with Alvina, but he devotes greater intensity to the Act Three scene with Alvina. Von Bothmer produces all of Harald's notes cleanly despite strain in the upper register but does not have the vocal heft to reliably project over the orchestra: von Bothmer makes a valiant effort, but a more heroic voice is needed to fully limn the machismo bellicosity with which Dvořák infused Harald's music.

Prague-born soprano Petra Froese portrays Alvina, Alfred's queen consort [the operatic equivalent of the historical Eahlswith], with a bright, penetrating timbre that partially mitigates the relative lack of vocal amplitude. Hearing her performance in Alfred, the expensiveness of her Mozartean credentials is not surprising, but it is intriguing to note that her repertory also includes Elsa in Lohengrin and Gutrune in Götterdämmerung, parts which require a spinto's or Jugendlich-dramatische's stamina and ability to fully project over the Wagnerian orchestra. Like her Slovakian predecessor Gabriela Beňačková, the greatest Rusalka of her generation, Froese maintains presences in Czech, German, and Italian repertories. Had she a bit more of Beňačková's arresting tonal beauty and security on high, she might make a stronger impression in Alvina's lovely but mostly passive music. In her Act One duet with Harald, Froese's Alvina lifts her eyes to Providence with a nobly-phrased account of 'Allmächtiger, verlieh' mir Kraft!' She follows this with a sweetly feminine but iron-willed voicing of 'Ich bin's und war's, eh' Du Dein Wort vollendet,' its effectiveness undermined only by the thinness of the tone and a lack of authority on the highest notes. In the Act Two trio with Alfred and Sieward, the soprano sings with compelling animation and increasingly insightful management of her vocal resources. By the time that she reaches Alvina's Act Three scenes with Dorset and Harald, Froese is singing with energy and excitement. Not even her enthusiasm can rescue the opera's jubilant dénouement from an unmistakable outbreak of triviality, but the rousing resolution of Froese's performance makes amends for her tentative start.

Credited with expelling or subjugating many of the roving Danes who terrorized the British Isles in the centuries immediately following the disintegration of Roman dominion and diplomatically and militarily uniting tributary states into a form vaguely resembling modern England, the Wessexian king Alfred the Great is a figure of pivotal but likely semi-apocryphal importance in British history. More information now accepted as fact exists about Alfred than about almost any of his contemporaries, however, and he is not unworthy of operatic treatment, the suspicion that his reign was far calmer than legends assert notwithstanding. His royal mantle is here assumed by baritone Felix Rumpf, a native of Dresden who, just completing his second decade at the time of this performance, was roughly the same age as Alfred during the events depicted in the opera. Like Froese, Rumpf is an accomplished Mozartean, admired for his stylish Papageno, and Dvořák's music is sometimes a size too large for him. Also like Froese, he is an intelligent singer who knows better than to risk damaging his good-quality voice by attempting to feign a rotundity that it does not possess. Rumpf launches Act Two with a nuanced articulation of 'Wohl Euch, ihr tapfern Streiter!' He is too sensible to fall into the trap of over-emoting in 'O, welche Marter wird Dir nicht bereitet, hochherzig Mädchen!' and the ardent trio with Alvina and Sieward, but he sings with passionate abandon within the parameters of his voice. He dominates the Act Two finale with a statement of 'Des langen Kampfes müde lag unberührt der Stahl' that throbs with unflinching senses of duty and purpose. The finest music in the score is Alfred's prayer in Act Three, 'Höre unser lautes Flehen, Gott der Siege, Gott der Schlacht,' and Rumpf sings the number with understated grandeur. Rumpf is careful to convey Alfred's regal bearing via his superb diction, and he sings so aristocratically and attractively that it is frequently possible to forget that the voice is lean for Dvořák's corpulent vocal lines. Rumpf is an Almaviva rather than an Amfortas, but on his own terms he is a memorable, meaningful Alfred.

Composers' first operas have rarely been masterpieces, and Dvořák's Alfred is no exception. Many listeners' enjoyment of a piece like Alfred is seemingly complicated by a perceived necessity of analyzing every bar in search of evidence of latent genius. Alfred is clearly the work of a very talented beginner whose thoughts were affected, as were those of so many of his contemporaries, by the artistic altitude of the Green Hill. Förster and his colleagues provide a well-prepared, well-executed introduction to a score that introduces the listener to a master composer’s freshman exertion in a genre to which he would eventually contribute indelibly.

VOIX DES ARTS - Your Voice for the Performing Arts

Were it not remarkable in a myriad of other ways, Leoš Janáček's Jenůfa would be a milestone in the history of opera solely owing to the composer's libretto, an adaptation of Gabriela Preissová's drama Její pastorkyňa that was among the first prose libretti set to music. In it, the ugly visages of jealousy, lust, and damning social conformity are bared to the listener's scrutiny with music that is by turns lushly Romantic and starkly modern. In a manner of speaking, Janáček was an operatic Joseph, his coat of many colors enveloping a profound, intuitive empathy for humanity in music that translates into sound the innermost aspects of dreams that often go undetected. The product of a six-year gestational period and first performed in Brno in 1904, Jenůfa was not, like Dvořák's Alfred, it's composer's first opera, but in it the unmistakable, singular voice of Janáček—the voice that shaped Kát'a Kabanová, Věc Makropulos, and Z mrtvého domu—is heard for the first time without distractions derived from external influences. Not least because of his pattern of setting prose texts, Janáček's are among the most inventive operas in the international repertory, and Oehms Classics' recording of Jenůfa advocates powerfully for the score's continued appeal and thought-provoking social commentary. Most crucially, however, this recording establishes in Jenůfa an intimacy in which the demeaning intrusions of small-town mentalities into the everyday lives of citizens are examined as insightfully as in Peter Grimes and Der junge Lord. In Alfred, Dvořák dealt with heroic figures of lore: in Jenůfa, Janáček held a mirror to the scarred faces of common folk.

Recorded during staged performances at Oper Graz in sound of a quality that comes close to rivaling Oehms Classics' Oper Frankfurt recordings, this set documents a markedly 'modern' take on Jenůfa, the drama unfolding almost in the manner of a radio play. Conductor Dirk Kaftan exhibits mastery of the thorny score that places him in the company of Sir Charles Mackerras and Václav Neumann as an interpreter of Janáček's music. Intelligently choosing tempi in Preludes, set pieces, and conversational scenes, he highlights the manner in which the composer constructed the music upon the foundation of the cadences of the Czech language. Indeed, this is a performance that 'speaks' even when voices are silent. No matter who they are portraying in the course of the drama, the singers of the Chor und Singschul' der Oper Graz sing sonorously, the individual voices that occasionally stand out from the ensemble enhancing the choristers' credibility in public scenes. Among the ladies and gentlemen of the chorus of all ages, there are no weak links, an assessment that proves true of few performances or recordings of Jenůfa. Janáček's demands on the orchestra are no less stringent than those on the chorus, but the players of the Grazer Philharmonisches Orchester complement their choral colleagues by executing their parts with compelling concentration. Janáček's orchestrations were originally viewed with skepticism, their unconventionality deemed an obstacle to the opera's success with audiences. On a more modest scale, Janáček was as imaginative a wizard at blending instrumental timbres as his fellow Austrian-by-birth Mahler, however. Responding to Kaftan's leadership and Janáček's instructions with skill and soul, the Graz forces confirm that they are as adept at bringing Janáček's music to life as their neighbors to the north in Vienna, Brno, and Prague.

Emerging from their surroundings as both onlookers and participants in Jenůfa's tragic life, Ukrainian soprano Tatjana Miyus as Karolka, Wisconsin native contralto Fran Lubahn as Pastuchyňa, Chinese mezzo-soprano Xiaoyi Xu as Barena, Persian soprano Nazanin Ezazi as Jano, Serbian soprano Hana Batinić as the Tetka and a voice, and Hungarian bass István Szécsi as a voice all sing capably, not one of them lowering the high level of musicality in the performance with a flubbed rhythm or missed pitch. Led by Miyus's sweet tones in Karolka's 'Pánbůh rač dát dobrý den, dobrý den!' in Act Three, these intrepid singers create a formidable ensemble. As the Rychtář and Rychtářka, the mayor and his wife, Greek bass Konstantin Sfiris and German mezzo-soprano Stefanie Hierlmeier are a well-matched couple, as well, their voices resounding handsomely in every phrase that Janáček assigned to them, and Missouri-born baritone David McShane is similarly effective as the Stárek, the foreman of Stařenka Buryja's mill.

A chameleonic artist whose career includes notable assumptions of rôles as diverse as Saint-Saëns's Dalila and the Walküre Brünnhilde, as well much-discussed portrayals of Wagner's Senta and Kundry under the baton of Herbert von Karajan, Croatian mezzo-soprano Dunja Vejzović is an unexpected but inspired choice for Stařenka Buryja in Jenůfa. The voice retains much of its strength, and Vejzović remains an exhilarating performer. She sings 'Co to máš za radost!' 'A ty, Jenůfo, neplač, neplač!' in Act One with conviction that pulls the listener into the drama, and she continues in this vein in her every appearance. Ever a courageous, resourceful artist, Vejzović sings vigorously, conjuring memories of past glories, and in the context of this performance creates a memorable Stařenka Buryja.

Jenůfa's suitors Števa Buryja and Laca Klemeň are, like their female counterparts in Janáček's drama, two of the most challenging rôles in the Czech repertory. With almost identical tessitura and vocal writing that centers both parts in the passaggio, singers must differentiate the men largely by characterization. In the context of an audio recording, the ability to discern Števa from Laca is critical. This performance has a pair of singers whose voices are not vastly dissimilar but who manage to create distinct, distinguishable characters. As Števa, Turkish tenor Taylan Reinhard depicts a hard-edged man without artificially hardening his tone. In Števa's confrontation with Jenůfa in Act One, Reinhard spits out 'Já, já! Já! já! Já napilý? Já napilý? To ty mně, Jenůfka?' with stinging indignation, as though the character can hardly believe that Jenůfa would comment on his inebriation. Then, he tosses off his song with the farmhands, 'Daleko široko do těch Nových Zámků,' with grating insouciance but focused, ingratiating tone. The pent-up frustration that rushes to the surface in his declamation of 'Neškleb se! Vždyt' vidíš, tetka Kostelnička mne pro tebe dopaluje' is startling: it is clear both why Jenůfa is attracted to Števa and why her passion for him is ill-fated. In Števa’s scene with the Kostelnička in Act Two, Reinhard sings 'Proto, že se jí bojím, že se jí bojím' captivatingly. Czech tenor Aleš Briscein, whose repertory contains both of the tenor leads in Jenůfa, here sings Laca with simplicity and sensitivity that contrast sharply with the bolder profile of Reinhard's Števa. In Act One, Briscein voices 'Vy stařenka, už tak na všelicos špatně vidíte' and 'A on na tobě nevidí nic jiného' winningly, the character’s petulance rendered by the pinpoint accuracy of the singer’s diction. 'Chci, Jenůfka, chci Jenůfka, jen když buděs, buděs má' in Act Two also receives from the tenor a traversal of absorbing immediacy. Both Reinhard and Briscein are little troubled by their parts’ top B♭s, but they take pains to delineate the very different motives that inspire their characters’ actions. As enacted by Reinhard and Briscein, neither Števa nor Laca is wholly good or bad in a conventional sense, but good singing is a trait that they have in common.

The rôle of the Kostelnička is a histrionic tour de force, a gift for singing actresses in the performance of which far too many artists, consumed by acting the part, downplay or wholly ignore the importance of singing it. The Kostelnička gold standards on disc are both dramatic sopranos: Naděžda Kniplová, recorded in studio in Prague in 1969 and again almost a decade later, and Leonie Rysanek, documented in an incendiary 1988 Opera Orchestra of New York concert performance in Carnegie Hall. Acclaimed German mezzo-soprano Iris Vermillion of course cannot compete with her illustrious forebears in the Kostelnička's music in terms of decibels, but as an actress with a clear-sighted understanding of the part she has little to fear by comparison. She also has to her credit a carefully-trained, genuinely attractive voice, and she is the rare Kostelnička whose principal focus is squarely on meeting the musical requirements of the part. Vermillion seizes attention in Act One, voicing 'A tak bychom šli celým životem' with near-seismic intensity, and never relinquishes her grip on the performance. She uncannily propels the drama in Act Two with her stern but vulnerable singing of 'Pořád se s tím děckem mažeš' and 'Ba, ta tvoje okenička už přes dvacet neděl zabedněna.' The full spectrum of Vermillion's considerable gifts is unveiled in her account of the Kostelnička's great monologue, 'Co chvíla...co chvíla...a já si mám – zatím přejít celou věčnost, celé spasení?!' The repeated top Gs and A♭s and the climactic top B♭s here and in the final moments of Act Two tax her, but her solid, exciting singing is a victory of will. Vermillion makes the Kostelnička's decision to murder Jenůfa's baby equally appalling and heartbreaking: there is no questioning the sincerity of her distorted good intentions. In Vermillion's intuitive singing, the moment when the Kostelnička resolves to commit infanticide is as apparent to the listener as that when Tosca grasps the knife in order to stab Scarpia. In Act Three, the distress of 'Vypravuju dnes Jenůfě svatbu s hodným člověkem' is chillingly conveyed, and here Vermillion ascends to the frequent F♭s at the top of the stave with unhesitating security. Her cry of 'Ještě jsem tu já! Vy ničeho nevíte! To můj skutek – můj trest boží!' is both desperate and cathartic: hers is a Kostelnička for whom public condemnation is far lighter a burden than the hell to which her own guilt has subjected her. In many performances, the Kostelnička is portrayed as a bully and a shrew. Vermillion lends her greater psychological depth, but the particular success of her interpretation is the splendor of her singing.

Many performances of Jenůfa are understandably defined by their Kostelničkas, but Oper Graz found in Israeli soprano Gal James a Jenůfa capable of holding her own opposite a first-rate Kostelnička. With her fresh, youthful timbre and incisive dramatic instincts, James is an uncommonly engaging Jenůfa, one who is audibly a different woman after being disfigured by Laca's blade and again after learning of her child's death. In her Act One prayer, 'O Panno Maria, jestlis mne oslyšela,' James's Jenůfa raises her voice to heaven with tones that only a very stony-hearted Madonna could ignore, and her expansive phrasing is evidence of a deeply-considered understanding of the music. James sings 'Stařenko, nehněvejte se' enchantingly, the glow of a young woman's love illuminating Janáček's melodies. The slashing urgency with which she articulates 'Števo, Števo, já vím, žes to urobil z té radosti dnes' imparts the sincerity of Jenůfa's affection and the harshness of her slow realization of its futility. The Act Two monologue 'Mamičko, mám tězkou hlavu, mám, mám, jako samý, samý kámen' inspires James to singing of tremendous dramatic potency and vocal beauty, the top Bs rightly projected as organic resolutions to Janáček's complex lines and 'Kde to jsem?' cloaked in uncertainty and fear. Jenůfa's response to being told that her child is dead, 'Tož umřel – tož umrěl můj chlapčok radostný,' is sung with a delicacy that is far more evocative of the profundity of the character's shock and grief than other singers' groans and shouts. Symbolically at least, Jenůfa begins Act Three as a woman injured as destructively as can be imagined, her beauty defaced and her motherhood violated. The defining trait of James's Jenůfa is survival, however, and she delivers 'Vstaňte, pěstounko moja' with resilience typical of her reading of the part. The magnificent arc of 'O Laco, duša moja! O pojd', o pojd'! Včil k tobě mne dovedla láska – ta větsí co Pánbůh s ní spokojen!' is sculpted by James with vocal acumen akin to the touch of a Renaissance master. The fortissimo top B♭ with which she ends the opera is a starburst of reawakening hope that epitomizes this Jenůfa's battered but never abandoned worldview. Singing the rôle with polish and potency that place her in the class of Beňačková and Sena Jurinac, James is a Jenůfa whose beneficent spirit is far sharper than Laca's knife.

Performances of Jenůfa are often dramatically enthralling, but only the best of them are as musically rewarding as this recording from Oper Graz. In truth, few performances of any opera devote as much attention to fulfilling the composer’s musical requirements as the cast of this recording of Jenůfa expend in their account of Janáček’s fascinating score. Both Oehms Classics’ Jenůfa and Arco Diva’s Alfred provide listeners with breathtaking vistas of the musical wonders of the Czech Republic and Slovakia that leave no doubt that the cultural traditions of these proud nations are as rich and as enduringly valuable as those of their neighbors along the Danube and Vltava and over the Alps.