Cher Public

Slash by night

There aren’t many opera video releases that can be recommended without reservation. There’s always an “on the other hand.” Beautiful, intelligent productions are often hampered by a weak or so-so cast. Or wonderful singers are hampered by a nonsensical, boring, incoherent and/or turgid production. The Deutsche Oper Berlin’s new release of Janácek’s Jenufa is that rare combination of a video release that combines excellent musical values, detailed acting, and a thoughtful production. Enthusiasts of Janácek’s opera will want to pick up this video immediately.

Christof Loy’s production takes a fairly non-interventionist approach to the opera. He begins by having Kostelnicka led onstage into what looks like a jail cell, with stark white walls. The opera is her flashback. The same white room is the unit set for the entire opera, but there is a back panel that opens up to reveal cornfields.  

People in the opera are often bunched together in the small white room. It reinforces the claustrophobic feeling of a rural community where everyone knows everyone else’s business. The characters are in modern dress—Kostelnicka’s black suit symbolizes her severe personality and Jenufa’s neatly pressed outfits give the impression that this is a household desperate to keep up appearances.

Loy’s production does not overplay the grim, harsh parts of the story. The stark sets and modern costumes are balanced with sensitive personregie that emphasizes the intimacy of this opera. Yes Kostelnicka is led away to jail at the end and the scar on Jenufa’s face is a big ugly scab. But the opera’s hopeful C major finale has Laca and Jenufa holding hands and ready to face life’s challenges together. This production manages to be faithful to the libretto’s stage directions without seeming unimaginative and musty.

My only complaint is that Jenufa’s outfit in Act One is a carbon copy of Willy Decker’s little red Traviata dress and pumps. Costume designer Judith Weihrach surely could have come up with something more original?

Loy had the advantage of working with a stellar cast. Michaela Kaune in the title role is superb—her voice bright and fresh, her portrayal sensitive and winning. My standard for this role is Karila Mattila and while Kaune doesn’t have Mattila’s theatrical intensity the portrayal is much more that of a young, gullible woman.

Jennifer Larmore’s Kostelnicka was a surprise. I didn’t think she’d be able to transition to these sorts of roles after so many years in the lyric mezzo repertory, but I was wrong. Larmore’s Kostelnicka is also less overwrought than some traditional interpretations, but the more restrained approach works within this production. Larmore has sort of an aged beauty look about her as well that adds to her portrayal. You totally believe this is a woman who was once beautiful and in high demand, but has been embittered by a grim life.

Hanna Schwartz is one of those people I had no idea was still singing. She makes a welcome return as the Grandmother. The men are slightly less memorable—Will Hartmann as Laca and Joseph Kaiser as Steva do everything they’re supposed to do but not much more. Donald Runnicles’ conducting caresses the beauty of the score.

  • Porgy Amor

    I appreciate this, Ivy. I have not seen the production, but your review suggests just what I think Loy would do with this opera, and what I would hope for. I seem to enjoy his work most in operas of this period and later. His Lulu (also with Larmore in the chief mezzo role) is one of the best opera productions I have seen on DVD.

  • javier

    Larmore has been expanding her repertory these past 10 years or so. She may be most remembered for Giulio Cesare or Rosina at the Met but I find her so interesting these days with the career choices she is making. I will check out this Jenufa DVD but Larmore also has a new DVD for La Belle Helene.

  • leosweill

    I saw this in the house -- one of the great nights of opera I’ve seen even with Czech singing, German supertitles (this was before habe ich Deutsch gelernt) and a Google-translated program synopsis that unhelpfully didn’t make it clear that the Kostelnicka and the Sextoness were the same person.

    Hanna Schwarz was a revelation, as was Larmore. Will Hartman was sick the night I saw it but soldiered through -- it was announced at the end that there was no cover, if he’d withdrawn at any point the performance would have ended. so props to him.

    Now trying to figure out whether I can afford a trip to San Francisco to hear Mattila debut her new role next June…

  • Porgy Amor

    That DVD cover is cracking me up, though. It does look so much like a Decker Violetta who’s in the process of fleeing, like “Shit! I’m in the wrong opera!”

  • senafan

    One of my favorite operas. As a small and mostly insignificant point, may I make a small correction? It ends in B-flat, not C.

  • senafan

    Whoops, a correction to my correction, not that anyone will care: the last SUNG section is in B-flat. The very end of the piece is in E-flat.