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3.5.07

Jenůfa

Catherine Malfitano as the Kostelnička, Jenůfa, directed by David Alden, English National Opera
This Saturday, the Washington National Opera opens its highly anticipated production of Leoš Janáček's Jenůfa. This is only the second Janáček opera in the history of the WNO, with one Cunning Little Vixen done in English translation in 1993. This new production directed by David Alden premiered at Houston Grand Opera in 2004: after it played to critical success last fall at English National Opera, it won the Laurence Olivier Award for best new opera production. Catherine Malfitano will reprise her lauded performance as the Kostelnička, and American soprano Patricia Racette will take over the title role. Some of the supporting cast, as well as conductor Jiří Bělohlávek, will be the same as the excellent production at the Met earlier this year. In line with my expectations and after hearing the dress rehearsal earlier this week, I repeat my assertion that this is going to be the high point of WNO's season.

So why have none of the performances sold out, not even opening night? Part of this is due to the damnable provincial conservatism of the Washington audience, as there are many people who would be happy if WNO did the same group of 25 operas over and over. However, unawareness of the power of the Janáček operas is not limited to Washington. Even the Met did not sell out its production of Jenůfa, and that was with Karita Mattila and Anja Silja. Furthermore, in spite of the stellar casting, including the very photogenic Mattila, who is perfect for the Gelb closeup, Jenůfa did not make the cut for the simulcast in movie theaters this year. So, for taking a risk on Janáček, we applaud WNO and hope that the company is not punished too badly by poor ticket sales.

Available at Amazon:
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Janáček, Jenůfa, Elisabeth Söderström, Eva Randová, Vienna Philharmonic, Charles Mackerras
English-speaking audiences owe our chance to know the Janáček operas at least partially to the pioneering work of conductor Charles Mackerras. I have been listening to Mackerras's 1982 recording of Jenůfa (original released in 1985), with soprano Elisabeth Söderström in the title role, for years. Yes, Karita Mattila and Leonie Rysanek have made worthy recordings, and indeed there is a surprising number of recordings available for this opera. This one still strikes me as the best one overall, especially at the reduced price ($23.98 at Amazon, for 2 CDs) of the latest re-release, due out on May 8. Mackerras exhibits a profound knowledge of the score, having fought successfully for opera companies to begin using the version preferred by Janáček, rather than the revision forced upon the composer by the Prague National Theater. The rest of the cast is as good as Söderström, especially Eva Randová (the Kostelnička), Wieslaw Ochman (Laca), and one Lucia Popp in a small role (the mayor's daughter, Karolka).

The story centers on a beautiful young girl in a Moravian village and her relationship with the young owner of the local mill, Števa, who has gotten her pregnant. Števa's thoughtless, drunken behavior irritates Jenůfa's domineering stepmother, whom everyone calls the Kostelnička, or the sacristan's wife (an important position in the village church). A distant relative, Laca, is also in love with Jenůfa and out of jealousy threatens the girl and slices her face with a knife at the end of Act I. Jenůfa gives birth to a baby son while hidden away by her stepmother, but the scar on her face and the baby drive Števa to get engaged to the mayor's daughter instead. The Kostelnička knows that Laca still wants to marry Jenůfa, but something has to be done about Števa's baby. In many ways, the role of the Kostelnička, who tries to resolve the situation, is the most important one in the opera. In fact, the opera's actual Czech title is Její pastorkyňa (Her stepdaughter), the title of the source work, a play by Gabriela Preissová.

There are so many beautiful moments in the score, beginning with the nervous pulse of the xylophone in the first act. Is it the strengthening pulse of the baby in Jenůfa's womb, or her own agitated heart leaping repeatedly into her throat? Since we hear it only in Act I, the most plausible theory is that it incarnates the ticking of the mill wheel, which is the setting only in the first act. (Alden's production, which updates the story to what looks like the 1950s or 60s, turns the mill into a factory.) Janáček uses folk material in an ingenious, natural way in the dance of the workers in the first act, as well as the bridal song offered to Jenůfa and Laca before the third act's tragic conclusion. This is a significant improvement over the almost kitschy folk material in Smetana's Bartered Bride, for example.

The numerous impassioned soliloquies by the solo violin throughout the score, especially in Acts II and III, are luscious. It first breaks out memorably just before the Kostelnička makes her fateful tragic decision regarding Jenůfa's child, trying unsuccessfully to turn the stepmother away from her plan. Janáček turns again and again to gently oscillating, static harmonies -- a good example is at the opening of Act III. Having absorbed the lessons of Wagner, Janáček creates a continuous thread of narrative sound. The score is not broken into anything that could be called a number or an aria, although there are scenes that could be adapted as excellent concert pieces, like the simple setting of the Salve Regina in Act II, as Jenůfa prays for the safety of her baby. There are no real Leitmotifs, but the instruments of the orchestra often repeat themes sung by the characters, interlacing them in close counterpoint.

After the outraged villagers storm the Kostelnička's house at the end of the opera, Janáček somehow weaves a transcendent scene of clemency out of the reconciliation of Jenůfa and Laca. The ostinato melody that soars repeatedly above the scene in the violin section, over the bubbling of strings and harp, is what makes the closing scene of human mercy sublime. This recording is further to be recommended because Mackerras included the alternate ending of Act III and the Zárlivost (Jealousy) overture that began the opera but was ultimately discarded by Janáček (a good decision).

London / Decca 414 483

Tickets remain for all performances of Jenůfa, scheduled for May 5, 10, 13, 16, 19, 21, and 24. Students and young professionals, ages 18 to 35, should join the WNO's Generation O program to qualify for tickets at significantly reduced prices. Anyone who cares about excellent music drama should attend.

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