At first glance, Ivor Bolton, Chief Conductor of the Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, would seem an odd choice to lead Jenufa, Janacek’s grim tale of infanticide and oppressive village morality.  Remember the actor Tony Azito?  Bolton’s conducting persona reminds me of Azito’s amazingly flexible movement skills.  Bolton, he of the stiff trunk, sweetly doughy face, and arms and hands expressively rubbery, brings a marvelous ability to find the exquisite, emotional beauty in Janacek’s verismo score.

More than anything on this interesting DVD, I will remember the heart-wrenching violins.  From the tremolos that begin Act II to the fragile solo that emerges from the sturm und drang of Kostelnicka’s exit to murder the baby, Bolton uses these moments of surpassing delicacy and beauty to a deeply touching effect.  Perhaps it is actually due to his Mozart and baroque mainstays that he is able to find so much depth, variety, and moments of revelatory surprise in this rich music.

Opus Arte has released this DVD of a performance of Jenufa from Teatro Real Madrid dated December 2009.  Janacek’s opera, which premiered in 1904 and was originally called Her Foster-Daughter, is a dark, brooding story set in rural Moravia, centering around the title character’s out of wedlock child and the desperate shame and tragedy that it causes for all around her.  Janacek’s music is a vivid blend of verismo power, Czech folk music, rapturous melody, and some sounds reflecting turn-of-the-century avant-garde.

The music maintains the oppressive tension of the village life while also revealing the inner emotions of each character—lush strings contrasting with percussive xylophones.  That Janacek brings all these disparate elements together to form a unified and very personal whole is remarkable.  Janacek also wrote the very effective libretto, adapted from Preissova’s play Její pastorkyna.  In good hands, Jenufa is a deeply moving and jarring operatic experience.

The quality of Bolton’s conducting (and playing by the Orchestra of Teatro Real Madrid) is matched by a marvelously simple production from Stephane Braunschweig, serving as both stage director and set designer.  The set consists of high, dark walls that heighten the sense of being trapped in a situation that is inescapable.  The walls are set at different angles for each act and highlight the very limited use of pieces to define the space: we have only Jenufa’s rosemary shrub in Act One, and, most powerfully, only the baby bed of Jenufa’s illegitimate child, focused in bright white light, serves Act Two in Kostelnicka’s house.

Use of color is limited, with the palette mostly in black, whites, and greys with the occasional burst of red.  The sets, costumes by Thibault Vancraenenbroeck, and stark lighting by Marion Hewlitt work together synergistically to focus our attention where it should be—not on spectacle or effects, but on the human interactions of the characters.

This is also a fascinatingly understated production.  There seems to be a conscious attempt here to flatten the more melodramatic moments and make them more naturalistic, and for the most part it works.  There is an Ibsen-like feel to the production, which gives the few moments of real vocal histrionics even more power.  In this production, the frightening moment at the end of Act One when Laca slashes Jenufa’s cheek as she resists his advances seems like nothing but an unfortunate accident, perhaps just la forza del destino.

This is most evident in Deborah Polaski’s portrayal of the stern and gloomy Kostelnicka, a part previously  “owned” by Leonie Rysanek.  Polaski’s is a surprisingly restrained (some will say too restrained) Kostelnicka, more sympathetic and womanly than one expects.  Even in her mental deterioration in the final act, Polaski goes for realism rather than hysterics.

Ms. Polaski is also in extremely good voice here, pure toned throughout the range and without a trace of wobble.  While I missed a bit of the character’s severity (other characters describe her as “a gloomy sorceress” among other things), I found great pleasure in this portrayal of a real, three-dimensional woman who makes a terrible choice while trying to do the right thing in an impossibly difficult predicament.

British soprano Amanda Roocroft is a lovely if somewhat matronly Jenufa, sung and acted with great sensitivity and emotional power.  She moves effortlessly through Jenufa’s path, from her hopeful first act to the deep depression of Act Two and the shattering realizations and reconciliation of Act Three.  Her singing is mostly quite lovely, especially in pianos and in the middle voice.  She can float high notes beautifully as well; only when she presses the voice for volume does it take on a hard and glassy tone.

As the father of Jenufa’s baby, Nikolai Schukoff brings an appropriately oily, weak, and vacillating character to Steva, a man who faces the great decisions in life through a fog of alcohol or panicked self-interest.  Schukoff’s reedy tenor is well focused and he sings with admirable tone and variety.  As the hapless Laca, Miroslav Dvorsky brings a passionate and powerful dramatic tenor to the role, though one might wish for much more variety in his singing—most everything is loud and louder.  But he brings great heart to the role, and the final reconciliation duet with Jenufa is very touching.

The supporting cast is generally fine, though they occasionally seem to be performing a more melodramatic version than the lead singers.  Marta Matheu as the Mayor’s wife finds every cliché possible, and appears to be about to break out with “Pick a Little, Talk a Little.”  In contrast, Marta Ubieta finds much personality and style as Steva’s new fiancé, Karolka.

Overall, I found this production extremely interesting and moving, though sometimes underplayed in the climactic moments.  Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating “take” on Jenufa, dramatically and musically riveting.