The opera isn’t over until the fat lady sings………Jenufa and Opera North

If you mention the word “opera” to most people they will have images of an elitist art form, usually made up of rather large ladies and overweight leading men trying to convince an audience that they are in the first flush of youth with one of them waxing lyrical about “your tiny mitt is frozen.”

Whilst this may be a stereotype there is an element of truth in it, one thinks of such outstanding performers as Deborah Voigt and Jesse Norman and who can forget the rather large presence of Luciano Pavarotti, but who cared as their singing was sublime (try Jesse Norman in Strauss’s 4 Last Songs or Pavarotti in Panis Angelicus).

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In the very modern era singers tend to be slimmer and fitter (but there are still exceptions) particularly those that have to contend with several hours on stage in one of Wagner’s “ring cycle” operas (It was Sir Thomas Beecham who rather mischievously said that “Wagner’s operas contained some excellent music unfortunately, interrupted by a lot of singing”).

Anyway, to get to the gist of my blog, I have over the years been fortunate to see a number of operas performed e.g. Nabucco, Fidelio, Magic Flute, Madam Butterfly and enjoyed all of them (the Butterfly in Vilnius, Lithuania was stunning), but last night I had the opportunity to go and see an opera by one of the greatest composers (in my opinion) namely Jenufa by Leos Janacek performed by Opera North in Leeds.

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This intense story of love, jealousy and sacrifice is by turns harrowing, heart wrenching and starkly tragic. It took Janáček ten years to complete his first great opera, and in the final year of its composition he witnessed his own daughter’s painful illness and early death.  His soul-piercing score is laced with the suffering caused by this event.

A world-class cast includes Susan Bickley (Waltraute, Götterdämmerung) as the Kostelnička and Elizabeth Sikora (Salud’s Grandmother, La vida breve) as Grandmother Buryjkova. In the title role is the Swedish soprano Ylva Kihlberg.

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The opera I found rather slow in the first act but as with many operas the first act is the “scene setter” where the background story is spelled out and the main characters introduced.

It is Act 2 that simply takes the breath away and leaves the audience spellbound and emotionally wrung out. The only time I have been as emotionally moved by a piece of music was when I heard my first performance of Mahler’s Symphony No 2 by the Halle Orchestra under Stanisław Skrowaczewski back in the 1980s.

The set for the opera is quite minimalist which in some ways helps as it does not distract the listener from the music. The orchestra played very well, although in the first act there was some problems with balance and singers seemed to be making the extra effort to be heard. This seemed to be remedied from Act 2 onwards. I must make mention of the solo violinist who accompanied the singers at times, quite beautifully played with a sweetness of tone juxtaposed against the rhythmic complexities of Janacek’s score in much of the opera.

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So to sum up: A magnificent evening of musical theatre, wonderful singing especially from Susan Bickley and an orchestral score that is quite unique in opera. If you expect to come away whistling happy tunes, then forget it. But if you want to see one of THE great operas, performed with passion and emotion then get along to one of the performances.

Acknowledgement: Photos are taken from the current production by Opera North, Leeds.

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