MUSIC / Fanning flames in British hearts: As the Barbican explores the music of Leos Janacek, Jan Smaczny celebrates an unstoppable move from obscurity to centre stage

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The Independent Culture
EVEN without the stimulus of an anniversary, Janacek seems to be popping up all over the place. There is the short but surprisingly comprehensive festival at the Barbican this weekend. David Pountney has said farewell to the composer at English National Opera, completing his cycle of Janacek's major operas with The Excursions of Mr Broucek. Slipping into the interstices are broadcast performances of The Makropulos Case and that oddest of all operas, Osud. From being a relatively unknown composer from a far-away country, Janacek has come to occupy centre stage.

Britain's love affair with Janacek had its origins in the first staging in this country of Kata Kabanova at Sadler's Wells. Fresh from his experiences in Prague with the great Czech conductor Vaclav Talich, Charles Mackerras, the musical director of this pioneering performance, has been a crucial figure in building an audience for the composer. The shatteringly unresponsive critiques of this early effort - one pundit who should have known better described Janacek as a 'scrap-by-scrap composer' - have been transformed into near- unanimous praise for a musical dramatist whose works comprise a central statement in 20th-century opera.

Janacek himself would be puzzled by the reaction of British audiences today. On his visit to England in 1926 for a performance of his chamber works - the concert is reconstructed at the Barbican on the afternoon of Sunday 17 January - he found the British and, particularly, their musicians a chilly lot, inclined to 'measure everything', correct in string bowing and wind breathing, hampered by an inability to 'bubble over'. Janacek's strictures extended to the audience at the Wigmore Hall who, he thought, seemed content with the 'mediocrity of performances', satisfied by light without sun and the flames 'from a domestic hearth'.

Quite what has happened in the intervening years to change attitudes and responses to Janacek's music cannot simply be put down to the energetic efforts of conductors, scholars and producers. The audiences themselves have changed. A new readiness to confront an often unacceptable reality - and Janacek's operas are in most cases about the unacceptable - is perhaps the key to response where before audiences were repelled. Interestingly, in the Communist deep freeze of the late 1970s in Czechoslovakia, audiences for Janacek were surprisingly small. In a society where escape fram reality had a genuine premium, the wounding directness of Janacek's operas served more as a reminder of the ability of society to stifle and subjugate.

In Britain, however, Janacek's star has never seemed brighter. The detail which makes up the broad canvas of his operas is as revealing about the audiences which respond to them as about the works themselves. Certainly, Janacek's tendency towards post-verismo brutality and the dynamics of sadism and masochism has an all too modern appeal. The women in his operas all have an extraordinary fascination. The range is extremely wide. The Kostelnicka in Jenufa and the Kabanicha in Kata Kabanova in their different ways are uncomfortably close to the nanny figure so beloved of the British psyche. Janacek's heroines are also bewildering in their diversity, from the fragility of Kata Kabanova to the streetwise Vixen, but they are never less than beguiling.

By contrast, the men in Janacek's mature operas are rarely estimable and more usually contemptible. Matej Broucek and the moral disasters of the 'House of the Dead' stand at one extreme, but the rest, like Boris and the Fox sidelined by events, occupy a middle ground rather than an heroic opposite. Indeed, the exclusive, masculine world of From the House of the Dead is a major reason why this opera has tended to deter rather than encourage audiences.

Where Jenufa, Janacek's first mature opera, now plays to healthy houses, From the House of the Dead is widely perceived as a risk. Perhaps if Jenufa were given its true title, Her Foster-Daughter, and From the House of the Dead acquired a woman's name as its title, things might be different. Even as near-ideal a production of From the House of the Dead as that toured by Welsh National Opera (Pountney/Bjornson) has failed to establish the work as repertoire.

Apart from its lack of a central female figure, the message of the work is more profound than might appear at first sight. What might seem a 20th-century reworking of Fidelio goes far beyond the self-evident truths of the earlier work. The obvious 'Amnesty' candidate is Petrovich Goryanchikov, routinely mistreated and wrongly imprisoned, and yet he is only the means by which we enter the Siberian prison camp which is Dostoyevsky's House of the Dead. Most of the rest of the inmates are there for good reason, criminals whose deeds are the cause of their suffering. Amazingly, the catalogue of their crimes, related in monologues which make up a large part of the opera - leavened by a wickedly funny ballet-divertissement - make compulsive listening: Janacek relates the story without judging.

In a version of the opera promulgated after Janacek's death, his pupils Chlubna and Bakala filled out the orchestration and, even more damagingly, replaced the composer's realistically grim conclusion with a hymn of freedom which fatally altered his original intentions. While Janacek's own commemoration of freedom just before the end of the opera is not simply an ornament, it stands more as a reminder than a moral. Justice and injustice are only adjuncts to the main point of the work: the fact that even at his most depraved, man has an inherent divinity, if only a spark. While there is no central female role in the opera, Janacek returned to his perennial theme in what is the true benediction of the work, namely that even the darkest criminal had a mother; a characteristically personal reversal of the doctrine of original sin. From the House of the Dead is certainly dark, but it demands attention as Janacek's purest comment on humanity.

Even if audiences for Janacek's last opera do not break records, there is plenty of other evidence that Britain has taken him to its heart. A festival which has From the House of the Dead at its heart surrounded by chamber, vocal and symphonic music which in all their programmatic glory corroborate the achievement of the opera should be proof enough. The only danger in all of this is the one which Janacek himself isolated on his trip to London, namely that we simply 'make do' as performers and audiences. Janacek is certainly part of our musical life, and a vital one too, but we might just make the mistake of imagining that he is one of us.

A hint of this tendency was apparent in ENO'S new production of The Excursions of Mr Broucek. David Pountney has brought Janacek to audiences in productions which have made the composer staple fare, even rendering the apparently intractable Osud a compelling theatrical experience. Notwithstanding its dedication to Vaclav Havel and scenes of political liberation from the 1989 revolution, there is something worryingly wrong about the new production. The Broucek who emerges at the end of the opera is almost likable, in British terms an Alf Garnett figure for whom an audience could have a sneaking admiration; the mock duffing-up he gets from those on whom he welshed earlier is very far from the obliteration and disgust Janacek intended. It would be a shame indeed if in doing our best by Janacek we made the mistake of turning him into an honorary citizen.

Barbican and Radio 3 today and tomorrow: box office 071-638 8891

(Photograph omitted)

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