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8.570556 - JANACEK, L.: Operatic Orchestral Suites, Vol. 2 (arr. P. Breiner) - Kat'a Kabanova / The Makropulos Affair
Leoš Janáček (1854–1928)
Leoš Janáček spent the first sixty years of his life struggling to achieve renown, teaching, conducting and composing for local forces without enjoying financial or artistic success. Along with his professional frustrations, Janáček had a loveless marriage. The composer sought to overcome these disappointments in his work and fought long and hard to have his opera Jenůfa performed in Prague. When the opera was eventually accepted (albeit with a few caveats) by the National Theatre in 1916, and subsequently by the Court Opera in Vienna, Janáček became known beyond far the boundaries of his adopted hometown of Brno. At this time he met Kamila Stösslová, a young married woman, whom he spotted in the spatown of Luhačovice in July 1917. Her appearance, along with the Independence of Czechoslovakia and his wider recognition, allowed Janáček to enter the final decade of his life, as it would turn out to be, with confidence and seemingly boundless inspiration. This second disc of Operatic Suites focuses on two of the masterpieces of that period, Kát’a Kabanová and Vĕc Makropulos, both based on pre-existing dramatic texts.
Janáček was desperate to write a new opera after the hard-earned success of Jenůfa and so turned to the Russian dramatist Ostrovsky’s tragedy The Storm, the main protagonist of which is called Kát’a. Like Puccini and Tchaikovsky before him—two composers he held in the highest regard—Janáček hoped to write a lyrical romantic tragedy about the plight of a young woman. Janáček turned immediately to Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly for inspiration. The composer first saw the opera in Prague in 1908, but revisited it again in Brno in December 1919. Soon after seeing it afresh, he began writing Kát’a Kabanová. Kát’a’s story is certainly as tragic as that of Puccini’s geisha. Stuck in a provincial town, Kát’a becomes worried that she will cheat on her husband Tichon. Despite her plea to him not to go to market, her harsh mother-in-law sends him on his way. In Tichon’s absence, Kát’a starts a relationship with Boris. The weight of this sin is too much for her to bear and she throws herself into the Volga.
The suite begins with the bleak overture to the opera in the dark key of B flat minor. The ominous eight beats on the timpani seem to signify something oddly fatalistic, pitted against the aching harmonies in the rest of the orchestra. A second theme (itself derived from the timpani motif), accompanied by sleigh bells, prefigures Tichon’s departure for market. The second movement is taken from music of the action of act one, beginning with the interlude between the two scenes. Janáček repeats several motifs here, but uses the harmony to indicate a change in the psychological circumstances, with the meek Kát’a pitted against her hateful surroundings. More convivial music—taken from Kát’a’s scene with her adopted sister Varvara—hints at something more hopeful, but we are quickly moved on into Tichon’s departure and the return of the ominous fate motif pitted against the sleigh bells. The momentum builds and a searing theme appears in the high strings, underpinned by the brass and woodwind, as Tichon departs and the tragedy is put in motion.
A third movement takes us into the second act, and the preparations for Kát’a’s meeting with Boris. The tension and passion mounts, describing the hot summer night on which Varvara and Kudrjáš, Kát’a and Boris, have their brief moment of happiness. The fourth movement is largely given over to Kudrjáš’s teasing song about a spoiled girl who is constantly bought presents and to the touching melodies of their calls for Kát’a and Boris to return home. The movement ends with the ecstatic close of the second act, a brief moment of passion in an otherwise bleak world.
The final movement concerns the storm proper, with the whirl of the cyclone spinning through the various sections of the orchestra. It was in Kát’a Kabanová that Janáček really began to experiment with time, situating voices off stage and contracting and expanding timings for dramatic effect. As Kát’a runs wildly off through the storm, we hear those distant echoes calling her toward her watery echo, all the time egged on by the defeatist timpani. After her outrageous confession, we find Kát’a alone contemplating her fate, with her meek countenance coming through in the heartfelt music of her final meeting with Boris. It is another brief enclave of contentment and the suite ends with the staggeringly rapid death of Janáček’s ‘most beautiful and saddest’ of heroines. Her fate is sealed by one last blast from the timpani.
After the passion of Kát’a, we move with Janáček to his coldest heroine. Karel Čapek’s 1922 philosophical comedy about the 337-year-old opera-singer Emilia Marty (Elina Makropulos) struck Janáček as a possible opera text when he saw the play three weeks after its opening. Vĕc Makropulos (The Makropulos Case or Secret) concerns a legal fight over a document in which the secret of Emilia’s ageless beauty is revealed. Elina Makropulos, as she was originally called, is the daughter of an alchemist at the court of Emperor Rudolf II. Over three centuries she has been known and called by a variety of different names, taking vast numbers of lovers along the way. Given her great age, she is able to help the lawyers in the story to solve a generation-old legal wrangle, meantime, however, she is searching for the details of the potion so that she can extend her life again.
The suite begins towards the end of the opera, after the
secret of Marty’s agelessness has been discovered. The
music is taken from the moment when Emilia Marty
appears on stage for the last time. Although the heraldic
call at the opening of the movement indicates some
former glory, Marty is lonely and exasperated. The
ominous thud of the timpani (a recurring trick in
Janáček’s operas) indicates that death is near. The second
movement is taken from the bustling overture, indicating
the terrific scrabble around for legal documents in the
first scene. Unlike the ending to the piece, this music has
drive and pugnacity, with lyrical passages pitted against
whirling repeated motifs (the rumble of the timpani is
already in evidence). Janáček brilliantly encapsulates the
psychological tenor of the opera in this virtuosic
More of the material from the first act forms the suite’s
third movement, dominated by the arching four-note ‘Ma-kro-pu-los’ theme. Despite the ‘seriousness’ of the opera,
Janáček rejoices in the piece’s absurdities, no more so
than in the fourth movement where Count Hauk-Šendorf
recalls his affair with Marty. The dotty aristocrat
recognises Emilia as a gypsy woman called Eugenia
Montez, with whom he had an affair in Andalusia;
Janáček peppers his orchestration with ‘gypsy’ harmonies
and castanets. The fifth movement is based around the
duet between Gregor and Marty in Act II where the
libretto and the music again play out the discrepancy
between Marty’s need for the potion and the men in her
life’s need for her affection. Despite the clustered
harmonies that pierce through the texture, the sensuous
lyricism, which has attracted generations of men to Marty,
rides out. The final movement is taken from the third act.
Despite Gregor’s amorous approaches, Marty succumbs
to Baron Prus’s advances in exchange for the prized
document that will set her free. The second part of this
movement is taken from the last moments of the opera
when Emilia rejects the potion for a natural death. Her
decision is an exultant one and the brass writing, which
had been so heated and argumentative at the opening of
the opera, is now jubilant. Marty dies with a glorious
© Gavin Plumley, 2008
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