Over the past week or so, I've been listening, and re-listening, to what, to me, has been one of the highlights of the London Proms season, a performance of the Janacek operatic rarity, Osud, (Fate), in a radiant performance with the BBC Symphony conducted by Jiri Belohlavek. You can hear it, only for the next few days, here.
Most of the dismissive London reviews of the concert that I've been able to read have been, to put it charitably, inane, reeking of the fatal stew of inattention and deadlines, but one reviewer's point that I suspect is true is that the opera may be coming across much more forcefully in broadcast than in person, where the intimate opera, playing to a smallish audience, may have largely evaporated in the huge Royal Albert Hall. (Although the burst of enthusiastic applause in the end would indicate the performance also hit its mark among a large number of the audience.)
Only the London Times' Richard Morrison seemed to have felt my enthusiasm, writing, "Intense, obsessive and freighted with psychological pain, Janácek's Osud (Fate) is 100 times more interesting, musically, than some operas staged 100 times more often."
From the very first note, Osud boils over with unsettling intensity, beginning with the trademark Janacek ostinato strings, then sharp brass accents, followed by pounding drumstrokes, and remarkably, a trio of effortful, straining notes that evoke the revving up of a huge merry-go-round motor (or a particularly aggressive sexual union), jump-starting a great waltz that conveys both exhilaration and anxiety.
Osud's lack of performances has been tied to weaknesses in its plot - as if that ever stopped Trovatore - but such criticism misses the point. Osud isn't verismo. It's impressionistic, almost an opera of the mind, Janacek's very personal tale about a love-struck composer struggling to complete his opera, a process that seems both a parallel and a metaphor to his struggle to find his own life. Unlike most of Janacek's later works, the central character is not a woman, but a man, the composer Zivny, and the women in the cast, his love Mila and Mila's unhinged mother, are less full blown characters than projections of Zivny's - and Janacek's - deepest longings and dreads.
Osud's three short acts contains music that is unrelentingly inventive and powerful. There are fleeting glimpses of possible influences, a bit of Tchaikovsky, a massive Brucknerian chord just before the coda of the first scene, but it's all unmistakably Janacek, including the distinctive matching of the musical phrasing to the trajectories of the Czech language and that cant-be-anyone-else scoring in everything from great orchestral outbursts to vocal lines accompanied only by a piano, less recitative than precursor to a smoky, intimate cafe ballad.
We can only hope that that the BBC will issue this blazingly commited performance on CD and on-line. In the meantime, if you love opera or Janacek (or both), make sure you don't miss this performance. Again, it's available only for the next few days, here.