Šárka is the Amazonian Czech endowed with guile
and cunning who succumbs to simple emotion. Few operas can have the
libretto summarised so succinctly. This
was Janáček’s first, started in 1887, revised the following year,
then put away and forgotten for some 30 years. It was finally produced
in 1925. The gestation detail is related thoroughly and carefully in
the booklet accompanying the CD. It also contains the full libretto
The simple story is founded on Czech mythology. Šárka,
had herself tied to a tree. Discovering her thus and instantly falling
in love with her Ctirad foolishly released her. Whereupon she disarmed
him and had her troops kill him. By this stage she had now fallen in
love with him and killed herself on his funeral pyre.
If it were not for the success of his later works,
it seems unlikely that this opera would have been resurrected and completed,
let alone produced. That it was is something
for which we should be grateful because it enables us to appreciate
the development of Janáček’s music. Further, under the baton of
Sir Charles Mackerras, who has done so much to promote Janáček’s
works this recording explores all the strengths of the score
and if only by contrast thereby exposes its weaknesses.
The Czech Philharmonic have a complete ‘feel’ for the
music, at times driving excitingly forward, at other times lingering
languorously over an emotive folk theme. This is an excellently balanced
orchestral performance at all times supportive and strong but never
threatening to overwhelm the soloists or choruses.
For me Janáček does
not have the empathy with his female lead, the title role, when compared
with his writing for his male lead. Šárka is sung here by Eva Urbanová
who handles easily the contrast between the shrill vitriol of the warrior
and the warmth of the woman in love. With accurate vocal leaping
and seamless movement from head to chest voice we can appreciate the
strength of her singing even if there are periodic musical weaknesses
in the score. My only reservation is a certain lack of tonal beauty
but it is a small complaint when set against the performance as a whole.
Vocally she balances well with Peter Straka singing
Ctirad. He is an almost Wagnerian tenor with clarity of diction second
to none. He has some seriously melodic lines and misses not a nuance.
His aria Posvátné ticho is a joy to the ear.
Ivan Kusnjer and Jaroslav Brezina sing the comparatively
small roles of Premysl and Lumír respectively. Kusnjer has some
opportunities to demonstrate his smooth round baritone whilst Lumír
is a supportive role which Brezina’s tenor despatches with clarity.
The chorus has much larger roles than usual and all
four sections of the Prague Philharmonic Choir acquit themselves with
distinction. The chorus master Jaroslav Brych has enabled them to produce
strong sounds in depth with some distinctive contrasts.
Of a not particularly distinguished opera this is an
excellent recording. It deserves to be added to a collection for that
reason if no other.
seee also reviews by Terry
Barfoot and Peter Grahame Woolf