martes, 9 de octubre de 2012

The Two Widows by Smetana Creation in Angers


Photo: Jef Rabillon - Angers Nantes Opera
 
Suzanne Daumann
 
Smetana’s opera was written in 1873/74 and one really wonders, on seeing this wonderfully witty, playful and yet deep work, how it is possible that it is being produced in France for the first time only now, in 2012. Especially since the libretto by Emmanuel Züngel is based on a play by French playwright Mallefille. If I were more of a feminist, or given to conspiracy theories, the answer would be easy: the main characters of this piece are women, are two widows, and one of them clearly enjoys her single state and refuses to remarry in order to stay free. Jo Davies has set her production in the years after the first World War. A very fine black and white video installation by Andrezej Goulding, that faithfully follows Smetana’s overture, shows proud aviators and tragic events, so we know that Karolina’s and Anezka’s husbands have died during the war, but we do not know how long ago that was, nor how their relationships were before the war. We soon find out, however, how the two woman deal with their situation: Act I opens on a beautiful salon, 19th century furniture, consisting mainly of a desk, a sofa and a long dining table, blue leaf- patterned wallpaper, a stag’s head over one of the three doors and a spiral staircase to the right, these are the main elements and the whole piece will be played out in this set. On the sofa, a human figure is lying still, covered by a blanket. The servants come and go, rejoicing in the coming harvest festival. Karolina comes in and sitting down at the dining table and taking her breakfast, sings her joy about her life as the free mistress of her domain and her servants, ready to join in their harvest festival. Lenka Macikova is simply splendid in this part, her silvery soprano and vivacious personality are the very embodiment of the wit and irony of Karolina. The covered person on the sofa now turns out to be her cousin, Anežka. She is wearing black, and in fact is still mourning her husband. Or if she isn’t, at least she doesn’t seem to allow herself Karolina’s joy of life.
 
Sophie Angebault, lovely soprano tainted with gold and melancholy, conveys, along with the music, the impression that her affliction is maybe a bit more due to convention than to personal feelings. No time is lost however in reflections of that kind. Smetana’s opera, full of Slavic charm and polka, is led along with almost devilish drive and force by the Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire, conducted by Mark Shanahan. And now comes Mumlal, the gamekeeper, come to complain about an especially obnoxious poacher. I have to admit that he was almost my favourite character of the opera. Whoever loves Mozart’s Antonio and is frustrated to get so little of his views on life will be rewarded with Mumlal. Interpreted with happy abandon and a velvety growling bass, supply and subtly by Ante Jerkunika, Mumlal is the bass part of the vocal quartet (the tenor is not far now!) and also the personification of the humour and irony that are so present throughout in the music. Karolina sends him to catch the intruder who comes along quite docilely. In fact he is a young neighbour, Ladislav Podhàjský, and Karolina understands soon enough that he has been roaming the grounds in order to see Anežka, because he is in love with her. He is the romantic lover and of course he is the tenor. Aleš Briscein interprets the part with a beautifully clear warm strong voice, unwavering on the narrow line between sincerity and irony. Karolina sees through him right away and, as mistress of the grounds, condemns him to a fine and a time of imprisonment in her house. He retires to his room and everybody sings an ode to love. In Act II, Karolina and Anežka are discussing Ladislav Podhàjsky. Anežka wants him gone and Karolina wants her to marry him. Ladislav finally manages to declare his love to Anežka, but she turns him down. Karolina goes to the servants’ ball with Ladislav and after a few detours through jealousy and misunderstandings, Ladislav and Anežka will be happily united. We learn now that Anežka has loved him for longer than conventions would allow it, for she has been in love with him already when her husband was alive. Everybody rejoices and a lively polka ends the piece.Applause, well-earned applause for everyone: Bedrich Smetana for his wonderful opera, and his fine and witty music that is so entertaining and amusing and yet never shallow. Deep feelings are lying under the surface, never far away, but are hardly ever openly expressed. Like the light filtering in through the large French windows (Simon Corder is responsible for the lighting and a fine job he does), so love and regrets sometimes filter through the irony of the music, especially at the very end of Act I. In Act II it is the other way round, love and longing are everywhere, but always tempered by the subtle shade of wit and irony.  Thundering applause for Anger Nantes Opéra, for bringing this lovely work to life and back to France – may it be taken up again and again everywhere and all the time!  And bravos and thanks to the whole cast and crew for a most enjoyable evening!

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