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JANÁCEK Osud (Fate)  Helen Field (sop, Míla Valková); Philip Langridge (ten, Zivný); Kathryn Harries (sop, Míla's mother). Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera/Sir Charles Mackerras Chandos CHAN 3029 78:33




This recording dates from July 1989 and although not credited by Chandos I presume it is the one first issued by EMI in 1990 on CDC7 49993-2, which I regret I do not have for comparison. Here it has been remastered for Chandos by Peter Newble in their ongoing Peter Moores Foundation "Opera in English" series, and is enormously vivid both in performance and recorded sound.

Although written in 1905, Osud was never played in its composer's lifetime, and it is less than thirty years since the unperformed and then almost unknown score was heard in the West. Most British admirers of Janacek were surely first awakened to the music's power by the BBC's early 1970s production conducted by Vilem Tausky. Then came the Brno State Theatre Opera recording on Supraphon LPs conducted by Frantisek Jilek first issued in 1978 (SUP 2011/2). It was followed by the ENO English-language production in a double bill with the Weill/Brecht Mahagonny Songspiel first seen in September 1984, and later broadcast by the BBC in March 1985. So cumulatively one became aware of the power of Janácek's music, its passionate lyricism giving the apparently mundane evocation of a central European Spa Town in the sunshine in Act I, a pantheistic intensity which even when listening to the Czech text made it riveting.

With the advantages of Mackerras on the podium, digital sound and performers that believe in it, the music is now projected wonderfully, Janácek at his most incandescent. Mackerras and his singers are perfectly attuned to Janácek's sound-world, and the vocal line inflected by its Czech libretto seems to me to lose nothing in its English translation, when sung by Langridge and Field. The role of, the composer, Zivný, is one of Janácek's biggest male roles, very much the composer speaking, with extended monologues in both Acts I and III, and Langridge lives the role, his authority the result of his having had the opportunity of working into the part after many stage appearances both with ENO and the Welsh. His words, too, are clearly articulated and easy to follow.

The plot, which includes substantial autobiographical elements, and an emotional world informed by Janácek's torment at the death of his beloved daughter, Olga, at the age of 20, opens with the evocation of a busy Spa Town where Zivný and Míla, lovers of a few years ago, meet by chance. Míla's mother has succeeded in separating them and Míla has had their son, Doubek. Zivný has written an opera encapsulating his bitterness at their parting. Now at the end of the first act they go off together.

The second act is set four years later; the two are married, the mother deranged by what she sees as a family catastrophe. Zivný plays his opera and impulsively starts to destroy it, interrupted by Doubek asking "do you know what love is". His grandmother mocks and then tries to throw herself from the balcony; in trying to restrain her mother, both Mila and the old woman fall to their deaths. The scene moves on another eleven years (the score says "the present"); Zivný is now professor at the Conservatoire. Students, one of whom is Doubek, are playing through his opera. They ask the composer to tell them about it, and he does so with such passion that he conjures up a vision of his dead wife, and collapses. He dies maintaining that the unfinished last act of the opera is "in God's hands".

This plot is far less coherent than the music, but frankly, for me, if one judged operas by their plots one would have given up much of the repertoire long ago: this is an ideal recorded opera - glorious music wonderfully projected by the singers. Osud is notable for its huge cast of minor roles, and here the benefits of being able to tap the depth of a repertoire company at its peak means that each cameo is a living portrait. Here we have Janácek's wonderful build up of conversation, the interplay of holiday visitors to the Spa town, and the repartee of students in the third act. Chandos give us 20 access points ideal for getting to grips with so kaleidoscopic a work, and all the plums are easily accessible for repeated listening. This is a hugely rewarding music, and if you do not already have it Chandos's recording is an essential score for many music lovers.


Lewis Foreman


Lewis Foreman

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