Two Short Martinů Operas Reissued

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MARTINŮ: Les Larmes du Couteau (in Czech) / Hana Jonášlocá, soprano (Eleonora); Lenka Šmídová, mezzo-soprano (The Mother); Roman Janál, baritone (Satan) / The Voice of the Forest (Hlas Lesa) / Helena Kaupová, soprano (The Bride); Jaroslav Březina, tenor (The Young Forester); Lenka Šmídová, mezzo-soprano (The Hostess); Roman Janál, baritone (Bandit 1/Reciter); Vladimir Okénko, tenor (Bandit 2); Zdenèk Haravánek, bass (3rd Bandit); Chamber Chor/ Prague Philharmonic Orchestra; Jiří Bêlohlávek, conductor / Supraphon SU 3386-2, second opera available for free streaming by clicking on title

It still rather amazes me, considering the proliferation of performances of Leoš Janáček’s operas (The Cunning Little Vixen and Jenufa), that the operas—and other great works—of Bohuslav Martinů are barely known in the United States. Perhaps it is because his operas have less gripping plots than Jenufa, but although I am writing about the operas here I am not confining my frustration to them. I’m talking about so many pieces by this great composer: the ballet The Butterfly That Stamped, his Estampes for Orchestra, the great cantata The Epic of Gilgamesh, his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, his Cello Sonata No. 3, the Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 4 (particularly in the superb performances by the late Rudolf Firkušny) and his jazz-based works, the Jazz Suite and the Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra. And it’s not as if his music were forbidding or cold; on the contrary, despite its modern bent his music is gentle and lyrical, so much so that one begins to sing some of the phrases in one’s mind even when the piece is an instrumental one.

Here we have two chamber operas, Les Larmes du Couteau of 1928 and The Voice in the Forest of 1935, in superb performances—vocally and orchestrally—led by Jiří Bêlohlávek who has made rather a specialty of this composer’s works. He is a thoroughly modern conductor in the sense that his musical line is crisp and forward-moving, but ethnically authentic in his choice of musical accents. Moreover, he has an all-Czach cast of singers with superb voices: not a wobble or an ugly timbre in sight.

Interestingly, the earlier opera is the more “modern” in the sense that it is heavily influenced by both Stravinsky and ragtime/jazz, whereas the second is more conventionally melodic but not so much so that it sounds banal or formulaic. Martinů maintains the listener’s interest because he is always engaged in his creations; his mind is always working, trying to see where the music is going and making sure it gets there with some interesting side-trips along the way. Nevertheless, neither piece is really forbidding to the average listener the way Ginastera’s Bomarzo is, though the first of these may put off more listeners than the second.

Since I had no booklet to download with the audio tracks, I had to search online for plot synopsis of these operas. The Dadaist libretto of Les Larmes du Couteau or The Knife’s Tears revolves around Eleonora’s strange desire to love a hanged man—she kills herself when he doesn’t reciprocate (it was so strange that a jury in Baden-Baden turned it down and it was never performed in Martinů’s lifetime). The Voice of the Forest is identified as a surrealist radio drama in one act, commissioned by Prague radio and broadcast in 1935. The Bride sings a lament that she is being forced to marry a man she doesn’t love. Captured in the forest by not-so-menacing bandits, she learns that one of their captives is the man she does love and manages to release him. But since I am a music critic first and a drama critic only by relation to operas I write about, I can attest that the word-flow is perfectly matched by the flow of the music. If you have an open mind and open ears, I recommend that you investigate these recordings.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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