The U.S. stage premiere on July 25 of Janácek's opera "Osud," part of the first installment of Bard's new SummerScape festival, may have prompted as much advance curiousity about the stage sets as about the opera itself, which has long been available in several recorded editions. The unknown quantity was the maverick architect Frank Gehry, making his first foray into set design; he is also responsible for the new Fisher Center on the Bard campus where the performances took place.
The building boasts his tradmark curly sweep of metallic roofing, soaring and dipping in all directions. The single set for "Osud" took a quite a different turn: it didn't require a great deal of post-Freudian spohistication to perceive the symbolism of a large white, tube-like blook spread open at the top, and a sensually twisted red column standing beside it. Well, "Osud" is a love story, after all.
"Osud" (Fate), which followed the composition of "Jenufa" almost immediately in 1906 but was never produced in Janacek's lifetime, is said to have autobiographical elements, interwoven in a plot about a composer who unexpectedly meets his long-lost love at a spa. Janacek himself had met a woman at the Maravian spa where the opera begins, and she encouraged him to write anopera pertaining to her life; the two pursued an enthusiastic exchange of letters until the woman's husband intervened. The woman's name was Kamila Urvalkova; Janacek named his heroine, transparently enough, Mila Valkova.
The story proceeds: Mila and her composer, Zivny, have a passionate reconciliation at the spa, much to the distress of Mila's mother, who had forced her daughter to marry for money, despite the fact that Mila had a child by Zivny. Act II, five years later, looks in on an eminently dysfunctional household in which the lovers, now married, live with their son and Mila's mother, driven insance by her distress over their union. Zivny fiercely berates himself for having written an opera, still unfinished, accusing his wife of long-past transgressions (possibly imagined), and rips pages out of the score. The mother rages offstage, Mila tries to subdue her, and both fall to their deaths over a railing.
Act III, 11 years later, finds Zivny at a conservatory where he teaches; his opera is to be presented that evening and the students sing portions of it. As the ponder its meaning, he enters and begins to recall his life and its "bitter memories" in a long monologue of striking intensity: it is clear that his opera is autobiographical. He becomes increasingly agitated as a storm arises in the orchestra and lighting flashes through the windows; he finally falls near-unconscious to the floor, proclaiming that the end of his opera will never be written, but is in the hands of God.
In this short stagework (about 80 minutes, given without intermission), Janacek covers a lot of musical ground, much of it expressive and appealing. There are fast-paced ensembles and exchanges among the revelers at the spa, including a childrens' chorus; a Lawyer holds forth in an aria sounding very life a Czech folksong; the meeting between Zivny and Mila soars persuasively, with each of them given ample time for solo rapture.
From the opening of Act II Zhivny dominates the stage, beginning gently and happily, singing quite tenderly as he recalls a loving letter he wrote to Mila and progressing to enraged self-reproach before the catastrophic closing moments. It might seem that there was nothing left to top the melodrama of that closing, but Janácek contrives an even stronger climax at the end of Act III, with Zhivny’s final convulsive outpouring. It's a solo scene lasting well over six minutes, and it takes everything a tenor's got to give.
The tenor of the occasion handled it wonderfully: Michael Hendrick, a veteran of Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington Opera, and New York City Opera, commanded both power and pathos, and in addition revealed, in earlier scenes and calmer moments, a marked sweetness of tone. Soprano Christine Abraham's Mila was dramatically focused and tonally smooth in the impassioned meeting with her lover in the first act (it must be disheartening to be killed off half way through an opera), and mezzo Linda Roark-Strummer went mad with plenty of zest.