BBC Proms reviews

Prom 47: BBC Symphony Orchestra/Bělohlávek @ Royal Albert Hall, London

21 August 2008

Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall (Photo: David Levene/Royal Albert Hall)

Last week the BBC Proms presented Puccini’s one-act Il Tabarro alongside a Rachmaninov symphony and this week Janácek’s short opera Osud (Fate) was coupled with another orchestral work. Whether or not these two stage works would have made ideal companions as a double-bill, the odd strategy of presenting them this way made for slightly disjointed programming.

Osud only runs for about 80 minutes, so a filler was needed and there was at least some logic to prefacing it with Dvorák’s first set of Slavonic Dances (Op. 46), a work by a countryman of both the composer and the evening’s conductor. The opera begins with a burst of waltzy exuberance, so Dvorák’s orchestral dances served a purpose in setting the tone.

One or two of Dvorák’s bouncing, whirling dance movements are refreshing; eight of them together can be a little indigestible. It’s no wonder that this was only the second time in the Proms’ history that they’ve been presented in a full set. More often, one or other has made its way in as an encore, and some are more familiar than others. Jir Belohlávek is the ideal conductor for the work, though, and he drew an exact and toe-twitching performance from the BBCSO.

Osud is one of Janácek’s oddest works. A semi-autobiographical opera that portrays a composer writing a deeply-personal opera about a composer, its starting point is self-indulgence and lack of perspective, and dramatically it loses its way very quickly. With the original librettist a young girl, a companion of Janácek’s recently-deceased and much-loved daughter, whose only qualification for the job was that she’d written a bit of poetry, the omens aren’t good for great drama.

What Janácek does achieve in Osud, even more so than in the highly economical Káta Kabanová , is an impressively compressed story where he manages to squeeze 15 years of a life into the span of many another opera’s first act. There are casualties of comprehension along the way, particularly as each of the three acts takes place at vastly differing times and locations but that there’s any cohesion in the plot at all is a miracle.

What makes this oddity so worth seeing is one of Janácek’s loveliest scores, full of ardent longing, passion and conflict. Quirky moments like an imitation of bagpipes, use of piano and, at one brief moment, the organ add further colour.

Under Belohlávek, the BBCSO gave a magnificent, uplifting performance of the score with an unstarry but excellent cast. Despite signs of strain at key points, Slovakian tenor tefan Margita was passionate and powerful as the composer ivn and, with a number of Janácek heroines already under her belt, Amanda Roocroft brought both voluptuousness and coy innocence to his love-interest, the tragically-destined Mla.

There’s another of Janácek’s domineering older women in Mla’s demented mother, much sketchier than the Kostelnicka of Jenufa or Katya‘s Kabanikha, but vividly brought to life by the redoubtable Rosalind Plowright. Of a strong supporting cast, Ale Briscein stood out as Dr Suda and later the student Hrázda. The BBC Singers sang fulsomely, although the placing of smaller parts amongst them and behind the orchestra weakened their effectiveness.

Given the dramatic flimsiness of the work, a concert performance may be the optimum way to experience Osud. Certainly, this was a highly enjoyable and enthralling evening, a highlight in what is turning out to be an encouragingly good first season for Roger Wright.

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