Feb 20, 2007

Slow Build, Big Payoff

I had the immense pleasure of seeing Janacek's Jenufa at the Met over the weekend. Old Leos ranks among my top few favorite composers, and this was his first full-length opera, so while for me it doesn't rest quite as high in the pantheon as Makropulos Case or the ebulliently perverse Cunning Little Vixen (for which I made a special trek to the SF Opera back in 2004), it's still quite a powerful work, and all the more so in my estimation for being a slow-builder.

This is the kind of work that starts slow, stays slow, accumulates details and lets them simmer--then slam-bangs you with a climax that's worth every minute of exposition and seeming indirection that preceded it. At least, that's how it seemed to me--my mind wandered a bit during the first two acts, as they meticulously but rather meanderingly set up the tale of an unwed mother; the bitter peasant who loves her; the rakish cad who, as Elvis Costello would put it, gave her his child but wouldn't give her his name; and her severe, tragically meddling stepmother. But the last act, in which figure a joyless wedding, a dead baby under the ice, a near-stoning, and a beatific act of double forgiveness (sorry for the spoilers) had me on the edge of my seat, and beyond it. I was extaordinarily moved. It certainly didn't hurt that Karita Mattila as Jenufa, Anja Silja as the unyielding Kostelnicka, and Jorma Silvasti as the lumpen Laca were all exquisitely on point, and Jiri Belohlavek's conducting was both stirring and sweeping.

It got me thinking, though, about this slow-build genre. I know there are some major plays in this realm, but when I think of works I've found a bit of a slog to get through but ended up slaying me with their payoff, I can only think of other media: Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies, Gorecki's Third Symphony. Can you, dear readers, think of other works, particularly for the stage, that have this kind of glacial-crawl-to-a-giant-cliff-drop feeling?

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