How well do you know your Janáček opera? If the answer is “not much” or even “not at all”, you are missing out: the Moravian master combined impossibly beautiful music with some of the most dramatic, hard-hitting plots in the operatic repertoire. And nowhere could be more appropriate to see them than Moravia, the composer’s birthplace, whose capital Brno hosts the biennial Janáček Brno International Theatre and Music Festival – it runs from October 7th to 18th this year (with a pair of preview performances in September).

<i>Dido and Aeneas</i> production by Jiří Heřman © NTB / Marek Olbrzymek
Dido and Aeneas production by Jiří Heřman
© NTB / Marek Olbrzymek

The festival opens and closes with two of Janáček’s most gut-wrenching works, both performed at the largest of the city’s venues, the 1,055 seat Janáček Theatre. The opener, Káťa Kabanová, tells of an unfaithful wife trapped in a loveless marriage who throws herself into the river: Robert Carsen’s production, first seen at Opera Vlaanderen, covers the whole stage in water. Jenůfa, which closes the festival, also portrays suicide, but in the face of an intractable moral dilemma – having said which, the opera ends with the promise of redemption for the survivors. Both heroines are sung by one of Czech’s top sopranos, Pavla Vykopalová, described by Bachtrack’s Gilles Lesur as “poetic” and having “clear, beautiful timbre and legato”.

Mahen Theatre © ndbrno.cz
Mahen Theatre
© ndbrno.cz
A third Janáček opera, From the House of the Dead, marks the festival’s mid point. Based on Dostoyevsky’s autobiographical novel of his experiences in a Siberian prison camp, it’s being performed by Oper Nürnberg in a production by Calixto Bieito. The festival’s opera evenings also include a double bill of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Schoenberg’s Erwartung, in collaboration with Gothenburg Opera and starring Swedish mezzo Katarina Karnéus, a former winner of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition. Those with a taste for rarely performed modern works should go for The Fall of the Antichrist a dystopic opera by Viktor Ullmann (who also, when incarcerated in Terezin, composed the surrealist opera The Emperor of Atlantis). An intriguing counterpart is Steve Reich’s multimedia opera The Cave, chosen by the festival because both Janáček and Reich worked with the rendering of natural speech rhythms into music. The Mahen Theatre, where The Cave is being performed, opened in 1882: it was the first theatre in the world to be lit electrically, under a contract with the Edison Electric Light Company. The theatre also hosts the festival’s one children’s opera: Ravel’s L'Enfant et les sortilèges.

Janacek Theatre
Janacek Theatre
Apart from opera, the Janáček Brno Festival is an excellent chance to sample the composer’s output, which covered most musical forms of his time. Most of the concerts present Janáček’s music in the context of other composers and many include pieces that aren’t performed all that often outside Czech, such as his ballad for orchestra The Fiddler’s Child, which will be played by the Prague Philharmonia (set against Bartók’s Music for strings, percussion and celesta), or selections of his folk-based choral songs (set against Martinů). One of the biggest draws should be the October 8th concert featuring Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake, performing The Diary of one who Disappeared and a selection from the marvellous piano cycle On an Overgrown Path, set against Dvořák’s Gypsy Songs.

Amongst other performances at the festival, internationally acclaimed Czech pianist Ivo Kahánek plays a recital which includes the second series of On an Overgrown Path as well as the reflective In the Mists. Janáček is well loved by chamber audiences: you can hear his string quartet “Kreutzer Sonata” in a concert on 17th October, as well as two concerts for wind quintet. For those who want a different take, there are three concerts in a mini-series entitled “Jazz goes to Janáček”, including a jazz version of the Sinfonietta, which will presumably depart from the big brass fanfare and strict military time normally associated with the work.

Full listings of the festival can be found here.

<i>Carmen</i> - production by Tomáš Pilař © NTB / Marek Olbrzymek
Carmen - production by Tomáš Pilař
© NTB / Marek Olbrzymek

If you’re unable to get to Brno during the festival, the NTB Opera (also styling itself Janáček Opera NTB) puts on a full season of opera, focused on Czech works but encompassing plenty of others. All of Jenůfa, Káťa Kabanová and the Bluebeard/Erwartung double bill are being performed outside the festival time as well as during it, and there are four other new productions, three of them of works that you won’t find so often elsewhere. Dvořák’s synopsis-defying fairy tale Kate and the Devil opens in December, Ponchielli’s “Grande opera” La Gioconda in February, while Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin, written for the Salzburg Festival in 2000, is a story of a princess and a troubadour (a real-life historical troubadour, unlike Il trovatore) based on a libretto by Amin Maalouf. The season closes with a new production of Rossini’s supremely silly Le Comte Ory.

© Marie Schmerková / City of Brno
© Marie Schmerková / City of Brno
The season has plenty of standard fare – Tosca, Carmen (including a performance in the courtyard of Brno’s Špilberk Castle) – but I’ll focus on the Czech works.

Bohuslav Martinů was born just outside Moravia in Policka, Bohemia; the Brno season includes two of his works that you won’t often see elsewhere. The Miracles of Mary mimics the tradition of mediaeval mystery plays, offering four separate stories about the Virgin Mary each with its own set of characters – making it more or less impossible to cast outside Czech. Martinů’s episodic oratorio The Epic of Gilgamesh is paired in a "mythic" double bill with Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in a ballet-infused production.

Lighter, more romantic tastes are catered for by Smetana’s The Kiss and The Bartered Bride. And finally, just to reinforce the diverse selection of Czech operatic plot material, I’ll give a mention to Janáček’s The Makropulos Case, based on a play by Karel Čapek that sits somewhere between science fiction and historical novel. It was premièred by the National Theatre Brno in 1926: this season’s first performance, on 19th December, will be 90 years and a day after that première.

You can see season listings for these performances and others in the  Janáček Opera NTB season here.

 

This preview was sponsored by Janáček Opera NTB.