This first stereo recording of Janacek’s Sarka, his very first opera, could not be more welcome. Most of the Janacek scholars – reacting, I suspect, to tentative stage productions in Brno – have given it a bad press, suggesting that this brief, hour-long opera is markedly inferior to the opera of the same title written by Janacek’s contemporary, Fibich, 10 years later. Without any denigration of the Fibich – much more expansive, with more action – what this recording clearly demonstrates is that though only occasional flashes of the mature Janacek style emerge, his dramatic sense was already forward-looking, adventurously so in a fairy-tale legend which invited traditional treatment.
Janacek was immediately inspired to start writing his opera in the early months of 1887 when Julius Zeyer published the play, Sarka, hoping that Dvorak would turn it into an opera. In the event, Dvorak was not persuaded, choosing instead for his last opera another legend involving a formidable female, Armide. Long before that, Janacek had completed his opera. He showed the first draft to Dvorak, and promptly did a revision, taking in the older composer’s criticisms. Only then did he show it to Zeyer. Not surprisingly, disappointed by Dvorak’s hesitations, Zeyer regarded Janacek as a poor substitute, and withheld permission.
The manuscript was put aside, but Janacek unearthed it again just after the big success of Jenufa in Prague in 1916, and was agreeably surprised. With his pupil, Osvald Chlubna (who orchestrated the third act, previously left in piano score), Janacek completed a second revision, and went on with minor amendments until Sarka was finally produced in Brno in 1925. No one at the time thought it a match for the grander Fibich opera, already well- established, which used a different source for telling the Sarka story.
That title is best known through one of the six symphonic poems in Smetana’s cycle, Ma vlast, similarly based on the legend of the warrior woman, Sarka, who like her fellows, an Amazonian band, has sworn vengeance on all men. That is until she meets the hero, Ctirad. Rather in the manner of the coup de foudre between Tristan and Isolde in Wagner’s Act 1, the pair are instantly attracted. Yet Sarka overcomes what she feels is her weakness, and engineers the death of Ctirad at the hands of her colleagues at the end of Act 2.
Compact as the piece is, Janacek thought of it as his Wagnerian opera; in Act 3 – with the absence of the tenor-hero partially compensated for by the emergence of another tenor, Lumir, follower of the ruler, Prince Premysl – the dramatic close of the whole opera, when Sarka in anguish throws herself on Ctirad’s funeral pyre, emerges as a cross between Isolde’s Liebestod and Brunnhilde’s Immolation. Colourful as the scene is, Janacek fails to point the precise moment of the heroine’s immolation in the music.
What this recording demonstrates, thanks to a superb performance under Sir Charles Mackerras, with the four principals ideally cast, is that the compression – which inevitably involves a perfunctory telling of the story – so far from weakening the result, intensifies the symbolic element, with the attraction of the lovers treated as as Freudian fantasy complete with bondage sequence.
The very compression intensifies the dream-like quality. With the big love duet lasting only five minutes, and the whole of Act 3 lasting only 16, any dramatic weakness is quickly forgotten in the speed of events, particularly on disc. The principal point of the story, the love-hate conflict between man and woman, is made all the more evident, a theme which the great Janacek scholar Jaroslav Vogel relates to such other operas as Tristan, various settings of the Armide story and even Don Giovanni.
Those who are looking for the full Janacek flavour will be disappointed. At the start there are more echoes of Dvorak and Smetana than there are anticipations of the mature Janacek, but – partly as a result of his later revisions – the Janacek flavours become increasingly evident, not least in typical ostinato repetitions and in vocal lines which in his revision he made more conversational and compressed, more Janacek-like in echo of Czech prosody.
Eva Urbanova’s characterful soprano, with its flickering Slavonic tang, is ideal for the role of Sarka, always cleanly focused. Peter Straka, also with a Slavonic timbre, is equally strong as Ctirad, unstrained by the high tessitura, while in Act 3, with the hero dead, his fellow tenor Lumir, in musical terms, fills an obvious gap, with Jaroslav Brezina as heady and unstrained as Straka. The remaining soloist, Ivan Kusnjer as Prince Premysl, may be on the light side for the role, but his too is an incisive performance, with the voice well caught by the microphone.
The choral writing adds greatly to the atmospheric warmth of the opera, with many evocative off-stage effects, male and female voices strictly segregated – warriors on the one hand, Amazonian women on the other. The Supraphon recording is firmer and fuller than in some other recent Mackerras issues, with voices well- balanced against the orchestra. The single disc comes with full libretto and translation. I only hope that opera companies will now be encouraged to present this unique, and till now underestimated, piece on stage. In many ways it is just as adventurous in dramatic terms as Janacek’s later operas, no doubt a reason why he continued to cherish it till his death.'