Last night's Jenůfa, by Czech composer Leoš Janáček, was electric. It matters little that there were likely very few (if any?) in the house last night that could actually understand Janáček's work in the original Czech. The applause at the end of the evening was testiment enough to the audience's appreciation of composer, conductor, orchestra, and singers. There were no Czechs in the cast, aside from the very talented conductor, Jirí Bělohlávek, so it's anyones guess as to the accuracy of pronunciation and diction. Does anyone know how difficult to sing in Czech? There certainly a lot of "strange" looking marks in the alphabet. However, my sources (the internet) tell me that although there are an intimidating 42 letters in the Czech alphabet, each letter corresponds to one sound, thereby possibly making it easier to pronounce (in theory) by a non-speaker, or at least, to decipher. I have heard that Czech is related to Polish, and I would submit that (to me at least) Polish is a difficult language to pronounce.

The Readers Digest synopsis is thus: Jenůfa loves Števa, who says he loves her back but doesn't seem to want to marry her. Laca loves Jenůfa, but Jenůfa thinks he is daft. Števa gets drunk because he avoids being drafted into the army, and the Kostalnička tells Jenůfa and Števa that they cannot marry until he passes a year without getting drunk. Jenůfa dispairs because she is pregnant with Števa's child. (Think about what this means in Moravia in the 19th century.) Laca becomes jealous of Števa, and slashes Jenůfa's face in a rage. Števa no longer stands by Jenůfa and now says he will not marry her. The Kostalnička, who is Jenůfa's stepmother, hides Jenůfa until the baby is born. The Kostalnička tries to convince Števa to marry Jenůfa but he refuses. Laca arrives and confesses he still is in love with Jenůfa. The Kostalnička tests his resolve by telling him about the baby. He is horrified, but still proclaims love. She tells Laca the baby died, which is a lie. The Kostalnička drugs Jenůfa, takes the baby, and drowns him in the river. She tells Jenůfa that she (Jenůfa) had a fever and the baby died. Jenůfa believes her. Jenůfa and Laca prepare to marry. Some village men find the body of a baby in the river. Jenůfa is horrified to realize it is hers. The villagers think she is a murderer (as well as an unwed mother) and want to stone her. The Kostalnička confesses it was she who did the deed and is led off. Jenůfa tells Laca that she cannot marry him because she would not tie her awful fate to his. He says, as long as they are together, what else matters?

(I might also mention that Števa and Laca are half-brothers and that Števa and Jenůfa are both the grandchildren of Grandmother Buryja, though the Kostalnička is not her daughter. It is a strange and twisted family tree, not actually explained in the opera, but is in the play on which it is based. Good thing Laca gets the girl in the end.)

The production itself was odd, and distancing. Huge unit sets consisting of wooden walls that extended from the sides of the stage at the front towards the center of the stage at the back, dominated the stage. In the first and third acts presumably they represent the walls of the mill, a central "character" of the opera, although the centerground changes from Act 1 to Act 3. In Act 1 we see a triangular wooden platform intruded upon (built around?) a large, mostly-flat rock in the center - in Act 3 we see the same triangular wooden platform but now strewn with large boulders upon the platform itself. Act 2 however, which is set at the Kostalnička's house, was truly bizarre. The walls were again in place, but closed in the back to form an inverted "v", and there was an enormous boulder, at least 8 feet heigh and 15 feet long, in the center of the stage around and in front of which all of the action occurs. Are we to believe that the Kostalnička lives under a rock? I'm sure some deep symbolism was intended, but it was lost on this listener. During Act 2, when Jenůfa is in the midst of her drug-induced delirium, the back of the "v" opens up to reveal the outdoors, represented by a simple deep blue light and the Met's famous snow falling down. It is a winter night, and the Kostalnička has drugged Jenůfa, taken her baby, and gone to drown him in the river - the simple imagery is vivid and intense.

The singers were by and large wonderful. As I mentioned, I have no knowledge of Czech and so have no idea about the pronounciation factor, but all projected very well. On the male side of the roster we had Finnish tenor Jorma Silvasti as Jenůfa's lover Števa and English tenor Kim Begley as his rival, Laca. Both men had big, bright voices that carried all the way up to the top of the house. They sang their respective roles effectively, especially Begley, whose role required him to be spiteful, morose, dispairing, and hopeful, in turns. Both were very secure and had unforced tops which they reached into with ease. I also couldn't help but notice that the two voices were very similar in tone. The only small problem in the portrayals were their ages - they were both clearly older than the characters they portrayed. One would have been able to overlook this fact completely had it been for several references to their (espcially Laca's) youth made in the text. There were several smaller male roles as well, and we got to see one of my favorite Met artists, Paul Pliska, as the Mayor in Act 3.

On the female side we had Finnish soprano Karita Mattila in the title role and German soprano Anja Silja as the Kostalnička. Mattila is no youngster - she won the very first Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 1983 (You may recall that the enigmatic Hvorostovsky also won this prestigeous competition in 1989.) Yet her Jenůfa is so young and naive that you believe she is this peasant girl on the verge of adulthood. Her voice was radiant and full, always beautiful in tone, and soared above the staff and above the other voices in ensemble. My only reservation with her performance was her physical acting in Acts 1 and 2 - the tripping and flailing and general lack of motor coordination rather gave one the impression of a "simple" person, if you catch my meaning, or one who is very young (too young to be getting married). Jenůfa is clearly neither, as her intelligence is referred to in the first act (she is "as smart as a man" - ha! - and has taught several younger children to read) and she obviously is old enough to get married. The ungainliness vanishes in Act 3, suggesting it was all part of the act, so to speak. (Reviews of her Salome at the Met a few years back also suggest this...) The rest of the physicality of the performance was wonderful however - the running about (barefoot no less!) in Act 1 and her actions and reactions while in the sleeping potion delirium are perfect.

Anja Silja is a veteran of the operatic stage, having made her operatic debut all the way back in 1959. Her portrayal of the Kostalnička is both chilling and haunting, if not beautiful. All the notes are there, and accurate, but much of the role was sung in a choppy, sort of spoken style, which was starkly contrasted to Mattila's beautiful lines. Our introduction to the Kostalnička in Act 1 paints her as a rather one-dimensional character, a characature of the "strict matroness", but Acts 2 and 3 provide deeper insight. Regardless of any vocal shortcomings, it was an emotionally wrought performance, and the tension between the two women was palpable.

A mention should also be said for Barbara Dever, who plays Grandmother Buryja. She sang with a strong, warm tone, and her acting was impeccable. Grandmother Buryja is an old blind woman, and Devers spends half of the first act tottering around the stage, in a very convincing fashion, with her walking stick, sometimes walking into rocks and such. (Part of Act 3 as well, the poor woman!)

The orchestral work was splendidly conducted by Jirí Bělohlávek and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra sounded as good as ever. Though I am unfamiliar with the score, the music seemed subtly and deftly executed, from the first tones of the xylophone to the final crashing chords. There was but one bit of orchestral mayhem, in the final bars of the opera - were the horns supposed to be so squally? (I'm uncertain.) The music is familiar and yet not familiar. The score seems to straddle two musical styles, the very lyrical, aria-based forms of the 19th century, and the more free flowing musical ideas of the 20th (and indeed, this opera was written, or at least premiered, in 1904). There are some set pieces, like Jenůfa's beautiful prayer to the Virgin Mary in Act 2, and the chorus' drinking song in Act 1, while other times the melodic lines seem more turbulent and unstructured. Like the use of the xylophone in the opening moments - and what an unexpected and yet perfect musical character to set the tone! - there are many instances of simple figures in the instruments supporting the lines of the singers. In fact, the orchestra supports the singers the entire opera, providing a perfect raft on which to float and, when necessary, launch themselves from.

The audience was extremely well-behaved (very little coughing occurring) and extremely polite. Since the work does not quite sound conventional (as, say, Rigoletto) it was almost as though members were uncertain when, or even if, they were allowed to clap mid-act. As such, there was no applause whatsoever to interrupt the mood and flow of each act, which worked well to sustain the tension and emotion in the house and on stage. At the end of each act the applause was quite loud. And the ovation at the end was a thunderous applause replete with calls of Bravi! It was well-deserved.

I don't know how well this opera will translate to a radio audience with no visuals or translations to guide them, but I think that the score, along with Mattila's performance, should be enough to persuade you to give it a listen. If you're interested it will be the Met's live Saturday matinee broadcast on February 17th.

There was a time that I never would have thought to go to an opera in Czech, or Russian, or German, or even English. It was strictly Italian fare, with a little bit of French thrown in for flavor. Don't get me wrong, I love Italian and French opera. But thankfully that time was short and I can now sample a broader palate of operatic delights


At 9:19 AM, Blogger Veronique said...

What a crazy plot! I love it. It sounds like it was quite an experience.

At 10:02 AM, Blogger Stacey said...

wow - that sounds like an amazing production!!!!

I wanted to respond to your comments you left me but I have no email address! I have knitted stranded socks once before (Mamluke) and they were too small the first time around (like you - couldnt' get them over my heel) so I ripped and re-did and they are perfect now!

At 6:51 AM, Anonymous sandra said...

Honey, did you think about cariera move - to write opera critics!
BTW, our (croatian) language has 30 letter and is pretty similar to czech and polish ones! Ahoi!


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