Tuesday 27 July 2021

Janacek's 'The Diary of One Who Disappeared' alongside his Moravian songs and Dvorak's 'Gypsy Songs' from Nicky Spence, Fleur Barron, Dylan Perez and friends at Opera Holland Park

Janacek collecting folk-songs on 19 August 1906 in Strání
Janacek collecting folk-songs on 19 August 1906 in Strání

Janacek The Diary of one Who Disappeared, Dvorak Gypsy Songs; Fleur Barron, Nicky Spence, Charlotte Badham, Charlotte Bowden, Isabelle Peters, Dylan Perez; Opera Holland Park

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 25 July 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Forget the torrential rain, this vividly engaging evening of Czech song radiated warmth, energy and sheer joy

On Sunday 25 July 2021, Opera Holland Park hosted the first of a series of three song recitals, Opera in Song curated by baritone Julien Van Mellaerts [who was the Count in Opera Holland Park's recent production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, see my review] and pianist Dylan Perez. On Sunday, Dylan Perez was joined by tenor Nicky Spence, mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron, mezzo-soprano Charlotte Badham, soprano Charlotte Bowden and soprano Isabelle Peters for a selection of Janacek's Moravian folk poetry in songs, Dvorak's Gypsy Songs,Op.55 and Janacek's The Diary of One Who Disappeared.

Long before he wrote operas, Janacek collected folk songs and he would collect Moravian folk music extensively in the 1890s, eventually distilling this down to 53 songs in Moravian Folk Poetry in Songs published in 1908. They are certainly not as well-known as they should be and this was a welcome opportunity to hear eight of them performed by Charlotte Badham, Charlotte Bowden and Isabelle Peters. Piano and singers were placed in front of the theatre's thrust stage with the audience round them, thus giving the most intimate performance possible in this theatre. And despite the torrential rain beating down on the canopy, this was an evening of joyous and engaging music making with all performers radiating great warmth.

Dylan Perez, Nicky Spence, Isabelle Peters, Charlotte Bowden, Charlotte Badham, Fleur Barron - Opera Holland Park (Photo James Clutton/Opera Holland Park)
Dylan Perez, Nicky Spence, Isabelle Peters, Charlotte Bowden, Charlotte Badham, Fleur Barron - Opera Holland Park (Photo James Clutton/Opera Holland Park)

Badham, Bowden, Peters and Perez gave us two groups of Janacek's Moravian folk songs, each group of four consisting of a solo for each woman and an ensemble number. The first group featured rather melancholy songs, and what struck me was the way Janacek in his accompaniments avoided trying to turn these into Germanic-tradition art songs, instead we had suggestions of the cimbalom and other folk instruments. The first group ended with a lively song in a dance rhythm. The second group followed a similar format, except here the melancholy was modified and Bowden had a definite twinkle in her eye when singing of a potential lover, though Peters was making a posy for a young man who was leaving and Badham was also saying farewell. The final one of this group, however, was a lively dance number, with the singers dancing between verses and Perez on piano conjuring up what seemed to be the Moravian equivalent of the boogie-woogie. A complete joy.

In between the two groups of Janacek we heard Dvorak's Gypsy Songs performed by Fleur Barron and Dylan Perez. Dvorak was only 13 years older than Janacek, but Dvorak was firmly within the Austro-German tradition and his music incorporates Czech melodies and rhythms within this. Whereas Janacek, who was something of a late developer (his first major opera Jenufa came the year Dvorak died) who stayed firmly away from the Austro-German tradition and rooted himself in Moravia.

Dvorak's Gypsy Songs were written in 1880 and use Dvorak's versions of traditional tunes with lyrics by Adolf Heyduk and built on the success of the first set of Slavonic Dances, published two years earlier. These are firmly art songs, with Dvorak melding traditional rhythms, melodies and tonalities with more conventional expectations; after all his publishers, Simrock, were German and it was in German-speaking areas that the music was aimed. Yet there are plenty of folk-ish hints both in the melodies and in the way Dvorak writes his accompaniments evoking folk instruments.

The first song, dark and soulful, showed off Barron's fabulous lower register and throughout the cycle she showed herself well able to use the colours of her voice in a wonderfully communicative manner. A fantastic dance number then led to the more complex, deeply felt third song. Despite singing in Czech, Barron managed to be highly communicative. The middle song of the set is the best known, commonly called 'Songs my mother taught me' and still highly evocative no matter how many times you hear it. Both performers seemed to enjoy the subsequent vivid, up-tempo number and in the sixth song brought out the sense of the dance element straining to be let loose. The seventh featured the allegory of a caged hawk which was used to evoke the gypsy and their freedom, here performed with plenty of character by both singer and pianist.  The performance from Barron and Perez was so vividly engaging and strongly characterised that you wondered why we don't hear these wonderful songs more often.

The final work of the evening was Janacek's The Diary of One Who Disappeared from 1921. Technically a song cycle, this is almost a mini opera and the sort songs flow into and across each other. Nicky Spence sang Jenik with Fleur Barron as Zefka plus Charlotte Badham, Charlotte Bowden and Isabelle Peters as the chorus and Dylan Perez on piano. Though not strictly staged, both Spence and Barron were off the book, and neither is a performer for whom keeping still is an option so this was a highly vivid performance.

The first half of the piece sees Jenik meeting the gypsy girl, Zefka and then struggling with his attraction for her. He is a good, plain boy, worried about what his mother will think and concerned about his oxen. The music is closer to dramatic recitative than song, and a world away from the Dvorak earlier in the programme. Spence built Jenik's emotional journey brillianty, by turns dramatic, intense, vividly angry and philosophical; he does not want to be in love, but can't help it. Janacek brings out the element of bathos too, one crucial number is addressed by Jenik to his oxen and much of the 'action' is ordinary farm activities. When Barron's Zefka finally appears (in the 10th song), Janacek uses the striking combination of soloist, chorus and piano to create some fascinating textures. This is not a gypsy being conventionally 'sexy' and the lovers' subsquent dialogue was wonderfully elliptical, with a strong moment leading to the piano solo, Intermezzo erotico, except that this music was nothing like we might expect. From then on Zefka is absent from the cycle, but not from the drama, she is constantly just off stage (after all Jenik and Zefka manage to have a baby) and in Jenik's thoughts. Spence articulated wonderfully the young man's mixture of anger, joy and anxiety, often with a powerfully bitter edge yet there were moments such as the 20th song where dance almost creeps in, albeit with a disturbing edge. Only when Jenik finally accepts, do we get the superbly affirmative music of the final number, powerfully brought out by Spence and Perez.

Afterwards there was an encore, a repeat of the Moravian  'boogie-woogie' number but this time with added percussion from Spence and Barron!

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