At the Heart of Two Summer Operas, Romance Gone Bad

By David Mermelstein

Published September 12, 2003, issue of September 12, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Romance gone bad lay at the heart of two operas — each part of a summer festival — one performed in Manhattan, the other upstate at Bard College. The Bard event, the first American staging of Leos Janacek’s “Osud” (“Fate”), and the first offering in Bard’s new SummerScape series, was notable because it inaugurated in earnest Bard’s plans to make its bucolic campus something of an arts destination, and because it marked the debut of the architect Frank Gehry as a set designer.

Gehry designed Bard’s new performing-arts space, the Richard B. Fisher Center, which opened in April. It is a stunning building, inside and out, and it is especially striking in the relative void of Bard’s undulating, verdant campus. But what qualifies a master builder to construct stage sets remains unclear, unless it’s drawing carloads of critics from both sides of the Atlantic. His set, aside from the uneven raked stage, consisted of three suspended forms, two of which were translucent and resembled crumpled handkerchiefs. The other looked like a lobe of liver. Only Jennifer Tipton’s subtle lighting imparted any life to Gehry’s creation, most of which you couldn’t look at if you wanted to watch the show, anyway.

“Osud” is among Janacek’s least-known operas — to say nothing of his shortest, lasting less than 90 minutes. It has none of the mystery that envelopes “The Makropulos Case” nor the cheek that enhances “The Cunning Little Vixen.” Nor is it as involving in its depiction of domestic horror as “Jenufa” or “Katya Kabanova.” It is, in effect, three scenes from the life of a Janacek alter ego named Zivny, a composer dominated by an ill-fated romance. In the first act, Zivny reconnects with an old flame, Mila, who bore his child. The second act takes place four years later, with Zivny and Mila now married and living with their son and her mother, who opposed the marriage and has been driven mad by it. Zivny has written an opera based on his relationship with Mila, which his mother-in-law mocks. She and Mila struggle, and the two fall to their deaths. The final act brings us forward 11 years to a conservatory at which Zivny is a professor and his son a student. Zivny’s autobiographical opera is being rehearsed when he arrives. Asked about the work, the composer imagines his wife’s ghost and collapses.

Janacek took great pride in the veracity of his first act, a pitch-perfect rendering of a Middle-European spa-town when properly realized. As with Gustave Charpentier’s “Louise,” part of the appeal of “Osud” is extra-musical: its ability to transport audiences to a lost world. Such matters were obviously of no concern to Gehry, and director Jo Anne Akalaitis clearly concurred, preferring a stylized mise-en-scène more akin to “Last Year at Marienbad.” Though the cast sang in Czech, these American singers weren’t exactly idiomatic. The orchestra, led by Bard president Leon Botstein, who conducted competently and enthusiastically, if rarely with nuance, was flattered by the hall’s acoustics, the work of Gehry and Yasuhisa Toyata — the duo responsible for the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, which opens next month. But though the sound was bright and well defined, there was also, at least on this occasion, a sense that the players were miked. Bard officials insist that there was no artificial amplification. Perhaps the cowl over the pit played sonic tricks.

Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” is far better known than “Osud.” Indeed, it was the most familiar of the six works the Kirov Opera brought to a summer residency at the Metropolitan Opera. The plot, based on Pushkin’s famous novel in verse, revolves around Onegin, a dyspeptic but sexy cosmopolite, and Tatiana, a winsome adolescent provincial. Tatiana falls for Onegin, but her feelings aren’t reciprocated. Years later, Onegin sees Tatiana again. Only then does he realize he loves her. But he is too late, and she rejects him. It’s a juicy, satisfying story, yet what really accounts for the opera’s popularity is Tchaikovsky’s tuneful, spirited music.

Naturally, with the Kirov Orchestra in the pit (under Tugan Sokhiev’s baton), the music received the kind of glowing, organic reading that reminds us afresh what a magnificent score this troubled composer wrought. More surprising was the way Pushkin’s tale was conveyed dramatically. Instead of the traditional spectacle of middle-aged singers inhabiting youthful roles, audiences were treated to performers who actually looked their part. This was especially true of soprano Irina Mataeva, whose Tatiana couldn’t have been fresher. In the all-important letter scene (arguably the opera’s high point), Mataeva jumped about the stage like a teenager in love. Her coltish, silver-voiced account will likely, and rightly, serve as a New York benchmark for years to come. And praise, too, to tenor Yevgeny Akimov’s Lensky, whom Onegin kills in an avoidable duel. Lensky’s aria is another of the opera’s peaks, and the rich-voiced Akimov sang it ardently, with that attractive keening quality characteristic of the finest Russian tenors.






Find us on Facebook!
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.