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.