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jenufaThe Metropolitan Opera once again provided an opportunity to hear excellent singing with the return of Janácek’s Jenufa, the centerpiece of which was the performance of Karita Mattila as the murderous Kostelnicka. However, this overall success was diminished by a puzzling production by Olivier Tambosi from 2003; its odd set design and slack stage direction provoked more dissatisfying questions than a fully realized reading of the text. 

Despite its strangeness, I find Jenufa to be deeply poignant and troubling. The narrative covers a wide terrain between sin and redemption within a Moravian village, the central concerns circulating around pregnancy and birth of a child out of wedlock. Despite the broad acts of domestic violence that constitute the plot, the opera’s characters never sink into caricature. Even a figure like Steva, who could easily be reduced to a sketch of masculine privilege, finds a way to express more psychological depth than expected.

Janácek’s compassion for the characters he develops is astoundingly capacious, and I left this performance of Jenufa with an acute sensation of ambivalence. For example, how much, in the end, can we blame the Kostelnicka for her actions? Was her transgression provoked by love or fear? Is it wrong for Jenufa to forgive and love Laca, in the end, even after the violent outburst occurring in Act I?

When I heard that Mattila would be singing the Kostelnicka at this performance, I imagined a kind a bombastic, gleeful campiness. The last time I saw Jenufa, Mattila was in the title role, and her embodiment of the younger character was full-throttled and intense. The idea of her singing the stepmother at first evoked in my mind notions of a performer on the decline (perhaps unfairly and cruelly), aging into camp, a swan-song one might watch at midnight on YouTube.

But I was wrong. I cannot deny that there was a touch of overt theatricality in Mattila’s performance, but her commitment to the role only served to make her work even more laudable. Mattila’s internal warmth allowed me to see the Kostelnicka in a new light. No longer the prissy and steely angel of death I had encountered in previous productions,

Mattila imbued her actions with a terrible sorrow and frustration; and a seemingly intuitive sense of maternal care seemed to provoke her outrageous choices. Not to mention, Mattila’s singing was consistently elegant, especially in a role that could easily rely on strident screeching and wobbly phrasing.

In the title role, Oksana Dyka was similarly admirable, and she made a fascinating counterpoint to Mattila’s twisted Kostelnicka. For as much as Mattila projected a complicated, internal struggle, Dyka suffered with a countenance of naïve, simplemindedness—almost Christ-like in its passivity. When I suggest simple, though, I don’t mean stupid. Her Jenufa operated through a unique, almost queer complacency. Suffering—certainly—but never quite willing to question or subvert her pain, operating from a stance of radical love. And her bright, laser-like voice moved through the score evenly, especially during the more strenuous sections of Act II and III.

Daniel Brenna was less consistent in the role of Laca, Jenufa’s assailant and lover. In certain passages, his muscular tenor turned shrill. Also, his approach to the character was significantly less refined than Mattila and Dyka; the singer seemed mostly preoccupied with planting his feet in order to launch his voice. This quality made the final moments of the opera difficult to accept—the man we once understood to be Jenufa’s enemy had suddenly become her beloved; and while this transition was a provocative notion, in all its political incorrectness, it was awkwardly made.

In contrast, Joseph Kaiser as Steva, and Hanna Schwarz as Grandmother Buryja, provided reliable, three-dimensional performances that added to the evening’s dramatic texture. Kaiser, especially, managed to bring to the surface Steva’s repressed remorse and dread, drawing genuine pathos from a character that could merely function within the plot.

The orchestra, conducted by David Robertson was keenly attentive to the needs of the singers, willing to pull back when necessary, in service to the score’s drama. However, while the musicians each brought a genuine dedication and commitment to their roles, fully developing them into singular creations—the sum larger than all the parts—the production’s direction and set design drew my focus, and not in a manner that contributed to the evening’s success.

As I have often thought of productions at the Met before, a strain of arbitrariness seemed to weave its way through the proceedings. Generally speaking, the blocking felt contrived and stiff, characters moving from one section of the stage to the other, merely because they were instructed to do so by the director; this was especially evident when the chorus was on stage.

The production’s set design was confusing. For example, why was there a boulder in the middle of the Kostelnicka’s house, and why did that house resemble a modernist barn? These questions were frustrating to consider. Even so, I would be lying if I were to say that I didn’t enjoy some austere quality of the design—especially the stark images of sky and land that were cleverly evoked, locating the action within an agrarian, earth-bound setting.

In the end, the drawbacks of the opera’s direction could not quell the vitality of its singing, which was enough for me to leave the house satisfied. In the spirit of the opera’s plot, whose central theme is forgiveness, I suppose these mild offences may be forgotten—especially when there remains so much wonderful singing to remember.

Photo: Ken Howard

  • With all due to respect to Patrick, who as usual displays an attractive way with words, there was really no reason to expect Mattila to be a “performer on the decline (perhaps unfairly and cruelly), aging into camp, a swan-song one might watch at midnight on YouTube”. She has received lots of great notices for her recent role assumptions, such as Ariadne, Emilia Marty, and yes, Kostelnicka. One doesn’t have to go farther than this very site to read such reviews.

    • PCally

      My thoughts exactly. Her stage debut in this role (based on reviews) was seemingly a total triumph. She sure as hell delivered last night vocally speaking, easily the best sung account of this role I’ve heard live. Dramatically she’s completely in the zone as well though I think her interpretation of the role is a bit too emotionally demonstrative for my taste. But she is one of the most inherently charismatic performers I’ve ever encountered and her command of janacek is without question. Dyka was nice but a bit too victimized and passive for my taste. Part of what made Mattilas Jenufa so extraordinary for me was that she showed and traced the way in which this strong, independent , completely capable young women was totally and forver altered by events barely in control. She was so earthy and fun loving without seeming cloying of naive that it was almost like seeing a totally different person by the end of the night. Jenufa is not an emotionally reticent girl, she says what’s on her mind much of the time. Dyka was too traditionally naive and innocent (a problem I’ve had with many jenufas) and so it seemed like events were just against her to begin with which, to me at least, both mitigates the tragedy a bit and takes away a large amount of the characters’ agency. Also dyka’s timbre just isn’t too my taste. Kaiser was terrific, and I mostly like Brenna though I agree to a lesser extent with the review. Schwarz was fantastic if a bit on the cold side. I happen to love the production, though I realize I may be alone here. I certainly don’t recall a lack of focus when it premiered and the initial revival was amazing so I’d chalk up the cluster to the revival direction.

      • spiderman

        No, you are not alone -- I love the production as well. The huge boulder is not to everyone’s taste, but for me it works as a huge burden lying on the souls when the curtain to act II rises and always gave me chills. Moreover it focuses so much on the human interaction -- something you don’t need a realistic room for (in my opinion)!

        • I’ve always thought of that huge boulder as a symbolist device intruding disturbingly into a realistic piece of what may be called Czech (or, perhaps more accurately) Moravian verismo. The massive boulder in act 2 is the same one that has only just broken through the earth in act one where you only see the top of it. If you sit in the balcony of family circle it is easy to see that the top of the two have exactly the same contours; it has cracked apart into fragments that litter the area in Act 3.

        • Big Finn

          I’ve seen the production in Hamburg when Mattila premiered her Jenufa, and in Helsinki a couple of years back, and find the concept and the design impressive, sometimes magical, and quite logical.

  • Krunoslav

    I thought Dyka almost unbelievably miscast as to timbre-- no float whatsover, hard and unyielding)-- and acting ability. In Act One she stomped around like Lizzie Curry in 110 IN THE SHADE.
    Hope Bystroem, who was lovely in Mattla’s San Fran outings, gets to go on.

    • Bill

      This was my 30th Jenufa, the first going back to the glorious Jurinac in Vienna in 1965 and in sum this Met performance was also one of the blandest I have seen -- this is not to say that Mattila was not impressive -- her voice seems still totally intact and almost everything she sang in the upper middle and higher voice was quite radiant which is not always the case for Kostelnickas I have heard. In the lower range Mattila is not as impressive. Her Kostelnicka is rapt with emotion in a rather understated way -- telling but not over the top. Among the principal singers Mattila was by a long shot
      far the most satisfying singer of the evening.
      Oksana Dyka has all the notes and stays on pitch but her
      voice is simply rather unattractive throughout the range --
      Krunoslav is correct, the timbre is unbecoming to the ear.
      If you compare Duka’s voice to that of Jurinac (which I am
      not allowed to do on this blog as Jurinac is dead) or
      Benackova (very much alive) just to name a few, one is comparing radiance to total mediocrity and I cannot imagine going to see Aida or any other Verdi opera if Dyka is cast in it.
      Daniel Brenna is a strong but rather bleaty voiced tenor originally from Wisconsin. The voice has heft and he sings Wagner in the German provincial houses and in Central Europe but the voice is not evenly steady though the notes are there. I thought he acted appropriately for Laca which he has sung in Prague -- I was a bit disappointed with Joseph Kaiser as Steva and he had very little applause
      at his solo curtain call. It was not the voice so much but
      his lanky body (badly costumed with a ridiculous wig)
      lent little reason for Jenufa to have found him attractive.
      Hanna Schwarz has been at the Met off and on for a couple of decades and seemed fine as the grandmother
      Buryja. Amid all this the very fresh voice of Ying Fang as Jano stood out for beauty of tone -- it is not a large
      voice but she is dearly remembered for her Mozart and
      Gluck at Julliard.

      For some reason I felt the conducting of David Robertson,
      though correct, did not bring out the bite which
      Janacek writes into the score -- so for me the entire
      performance seemed a little bland. The lighting of the
      sets was positive -- the second act which just consists
      of a large round ugly rock, works only because the drama of the opera is so intense and the beauty of the score
      so searing. The Met had many empty seats on a Friday
      night -- the applause was limited to about 4 minutes with Mattila receiving the only ovation of the evening.
      Nothing like the days in Vienna, the Met or Carnegie Hall
      when Benackova was paired with Rysanek and the audience recalled them again and again after the opera had finished. I have seen Jenufa in Vienna, Prague, Brno, Bratislava, Budapest, Hamburg, the Met and once in Carnegie Hall and I think this performance last night was the most underwhelming of all. Pity -- Mattila deserves better.

      • Armerjacquino

        Little reason to find Kaiser attractive? Tough crowd.

        • PCally

          I think he’s re pretty handsome myself and very well suited temprementally to the role.

        • JR

          Yeah, really!
          And that’s the first time I’ve ever seen “lanky” as a pejorative. Poor Gregory Peck!

    • fletcher

      I only listened to the radio broadcast but basically agree about Dyka -- I think I said “strident” timbre in the chat -- she has the notes but the sound was rather ugly. Also agree about the SF performances of the same production -- wonderful singing, and probably the most moving performance of any opera I’ve ever seen. I regret missing Mattila’s last Jenufa in LA, but her Kostelnicka is really remarkable. I wonder what’s next for her -- she seems to be sticking to Kostelnicka and Ariadne at the moment.

      • Big Finn

        Included in Mattila’s upcoming gigs is Parsifal at Turku music festival’s “lightly edited concertante” production in the summer of 2017. The cast includes Klaus Florian Vogt.

        • Cameron Kelsall

          She’s also doing Sieglinde in the next SF Opera Ring cycle, and she’s added Marie (Wozzeck) to her repertoire in the last few years. Met Futures Wiki also lists her as Judith in an upcoming revival of Bluebeard’s Castle; I believe that would be her role debut, if true.

  • Porgy Amor

    This production has been a widely traveled one over the previous 15 years, and was filmed in a good Barcelona performance with Stemme and Marton. No one seems to love it, but I suppose something worse could have been shared among all these theaters..My own take is that it is blandly efficient, a little obvious and narrow in what it sets out to do. It (forgive me) mines the libretto’s references to stone for visual symbolism, and works that idea hard. The drugged Jenufa sings that her head feels like a stone, and we have that oppressive boulder, which had been partially in view in the first act (still something only beginning to come into view, like Jenufa’s baby) taking up the whole room. Then the stone is fragmented for the final act into smaller stones with which the outraged villagers can threaten first Jenufa and then the Kostelnicka. (In one of the Met history pieces, I described it as “Olivier Tambosi’s geological production of Jenufa).

    It is somewhat appropriate that it’s returning to the Met around Halloween.

  • spiderman

    I think it is one of the greater losses in opera history not to have Mattila’s Jenufa in this production on film.
    I hope someone is clever enough to capture her Kostelnicka!

    • Yes, when Mattila did it with Anja Silja as the Kostelnicka. That would have been fabulous.

  • Apulia

    I wonder what, in Mattila’s previous opera career, justified James’ worry [The idea of her singing the stepmother at first evoked in my mind notions of a performer on the decline (perhaps unfairly and cruelly), aging into camp, a swan-song one might watch at midnight on YouTube]. since I have found that even when I have not enjoyed her (e.g. as Tosca, Manon Lescaut) I have still had to admire her seriousness.

  • La Cieca

    Our Own JJ on Jenufa:

    [Karita Mattila’s] latest portrayal, the rigidly moral stepmother Kostelnicka in Janacek’s Jenufa, may be her greatest creation of all. At Friday night’s opening performance of this revival, she dominated every scene, just as her character’s force of will overwhelms her entire family.

    • PCally

      Beautifully written review. I’m glad to read how much JJ enjoyed himself since I was actually unsure what his feelings on mattila were in general. Suprised to read the Tatiana shout out as I remember that particular portrayal being somewhat devisive.

    • Big Finn

      Great to read, thanks! When opera (or a performer) moves, it’s the best! -- They should have brought to Met the soprano who sang Jenufa with Karita at the London concert version!

  • I attended the last performance of the season, Thursday night. Sensational.
    As Mattila took her solo bow, she knelt, kissed her hand and touched the stage. Can anyone tell me what that signifies?

    • manou

      She is having an affair with Grigòlo.

    • Sometimes it’s an indirect way of saying to the audience “I have no further contracts with this company so I might not see y’all for a long time.” Debbie Voigt did that in her last Wozzeck. Dancers whose contracts have not been renewed sometimes do that too.

      • Ivy -- At first I thought that as well -- but the futures wiki shows her singing Judith in the 18/19 season. Based on how she sounded Thursday night, that’s something I would like to hear.

        • I hope the Judith thing actually happens. I have doubts though because I recall the premiere run of Iolanta/Bluebeard didn’t sell well even with Netrebko in Iolanta.

    • LMacbeth

      Mattila does this kneeling, kissing her hand and touching the stage gesture all the time. I know because I have seen her do it way often. Signifies nothing other than personal gratitude and showmanship.

    • Porgy Amor

      In fact, Mattila did this when she was in The Makropulos Case in 2012. Some interpreted it then, especially as there had been a blind item here that may have been about her (implying dissatisfaction with the current regime, and the word “immortal” was included in La Cieca’s blurb), to mean she would not be back.