Janacek: Šárka

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

LABELS: Supraphon
WORKS: Šárka
PERFORMER: Eva Urbanová, Peter Straka, Ivan Kusnjer, Jaroslav Brezina; Prague Philharmonic Choir, Czech PO/Charles Mackerras


Janácek’s first opera is problematic in a number of ways. First completed in 1887, it was revised and partly orchestrated the following year; copyright wrangles and Janácek’s changing interests intervened and Šárka lay fallow until 1918, when the composer and his pupil Osvald Chlubna gave the score an extensive makeover. Thus, Janácek’s version of the Czech legend of the amazon warrior Šárka and her tragic love for Ctirad straddles widely differing stages in the composer’s career. In terms of Czech opera of the 1880s, it is way ahead of its time: pre-echoes of Jenufa and Katya abound, and impressionist harmonic colouring sits sometimes uneasily alongside occasionally underformed melodic lines; at times the score moves with bewildering speed and has a concision wholly atypical of Romantic opera. Even so, there is much that is superb, not least the exchanges between Ctirad and Šárka – one of the shortest love scenes on record – and the magnificent closing pages, all unmistakably by Janácek. Supraphon’s contention that this is a ‘world premiere recording’ is inaccurate since a serviceable Czechoslovak Radio recording from 1953 was issued eight years ago by Multisonic. This handsome new version, however, is superior in every way. Urbanová’s magnificent Šárka is superbly partnered by Peter Straka’s Ctirad; best of all is Mackerras’s conducting of the Czech Philharmonic in blistering form. My only worry was an unsettled first entry from Ivan Kusnjer as Premysl. This landmark performance should convert many to an opera which for too long has seemed merely a curiosity.


Jan Smaczny