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Jenůfa, Washington National Opera

Patricia Racette as Jenůfa, Washington National Opera, photo by Karin Cooper
Patricia Racette as Jenůfa, Washington National Opera, photo by Karin Cooper
On Saturday night, the Washington National Opera opened its best production of the season, with David Alden's modernized staging of Leoš Janáček's Jenůfa. Washington is the last of the three cities co-producing this version to see it on the stage, after a well-received 2004 premiere at Houston Grand Opera and an overwhelming critical success last fall at English National Opera, where it won the Laurence Olivier Award for best new opera production.

Janáček adapted the libretto himself, from a play by Gabriela Preissová called Její pastorkyňa (Her stepdaughter), the title by which the opera is known in Czech. The story centers on Jenůfa, a beautiful 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.

The cast acts and sings to excellent effect, across the board. The lovely, smooth-voiced Patricia Racette captures both Jenůfa's innocent sweetness and her unmeasurable sorrow. Her voice has roundness and power in all registers and ranges from delectable simplicity, as in the heart-breaking setting of the Salve Regina, with quiet harp and glockenspiel, in Act II (shown in the photo above), to banshee's keen. She was matched in intensity, perhaps exceeded, by the other star of the evening, Catherine Malfitano, who reprised her lauded performance as the Kostelnička. In a severe black dress (costumes by Jon Morrell), she is a terrifying figure, making her unraveling at the end of Act II, where she has a guilt-ridden vision of "death staring me in the face," one of the most dramatic moments of the evening. It was Malfitano's name and star power that led Houston Grand Opera to undertake three productions of Janáček operas for her to star in, Kát'a Kabanová, The Makropoulos Affair, and this one. Sadly, Jenůfa is the only one to make it to Washington so far.

Catherine Malfitano as the Kostelnička in Jenůfa, Washington National Opera, photo by Karin Cooper
Catherine Malfitano as the Kostelnička in Jenůfa, Washington National Opera, photo by Karin Cooper
Judith Christin was a rich, matronly vocal presence as Grandmother Buryjovka, and Kim Begley's Laca was solid, vocally and dramatically a little roughneck, with the swaggering, menacing bluster of the first act atoned for beautifully in the transcendent final scene. Raymond Very, who like Begley has sung his role at the Metropolitan Opera, was a vain and noisy Števa. Among the supporting cast, baritone Jeffrey Wells was especially impressive and strong as the cigar-chomping Foreman. Fine turns also came from Elizabeth Andrews Roberts, who was a spastic and bedraggled Jano, as well as Christina Martos (Barena), the puissant Magdalena Wór (Herdswoman), and Leslie Mutchler (Karolka). All four of the latter are current or former members of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program. The only downside musically was in the orchestra, which sounded a little unsure of the score, perhaps combined with opening-night jitters. Conductor Jiří Bělohlávek did his best to keep the players and singers together, with results that, while still very good, lacked polish and self-assurance.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, In 'Jenufa,' Plenty of Wrongs Done Right (Washington Post, May 7)

[Anonymous], 'Jenufa' out-performs audience at opening (Washington Times, May 7)
David Alden's production updates the story to what looks like the 1950s or 60s, with the mill shown as a factory (sets by Charles Edwards). The intention is to bring the viewer closer to the drama, but Alden loses more than he gains by fooling with Janáček's careful calibration of his musical score to the rural, folk-infused setting. What becomes of the nervous pulse of the xylophone in the first act, meant to incarnate the incessant clicking of the mill wheel? The factory door opens sometimes when the xylophone is playing, to reveal a flickering fluorescent light, but the meaning is lost. Alden goes overboard to transpose the hardships of the little village to those of the modern world: Števa's leather biker costume and entrance on a motorcycle, the chorus recast like extras from Grease, and the shepherd boy Jano, whose excitement at Jenůfa teaching him to read is supposed to underscore the problem of illiteracy in rural Moravia, made into a paint-huffing tweaker. By the time we get to the third act, Alden sheepishly costumes the women who sing the wedding song in something like traditional Moravian folk dress, apparently no longer able to ignore Janáček's alluring sound world. The idea may not be quite right, but the execution leads to considerable dramatic effect, not least because of how the moody lighting (original design by Adam Silverman, modified for WNO by Jon Clark) underscores the narrative shifts.

In spite of some minor reservations, this production of Jenůfa is essential viewing for anyone who cares about music drama. For an opera that is hardly familiar, the large but not sold-out audience at opening night seemed spellbound and responded with loud ovations. Let us hope it is a sign that the Washington National Opera will be rewarded for presenting this opera. It is only the second Janáček opera in the history of the WNO, with one lackluster Cunning Little Vixen done in English translation in 1993. May there be many more.

Six more performances of Jenůfa are scheduled for May 10, 13, 16, 19, 21, and 24. If you are a student or young professional, ages 18 to 35, you qualify for WNO's Generation O program. Members have been offered tickets at greatly reduced prices ($35 for orchestra and $25 for rear orchestra) for the May 10 and May 24 performances, both at 7:30 p.m. Purchase online with the promotion code 5649.


Anonymous said...

I had a chance to see the opera yesterday night and I share your reservations about the production. We were initially seated, like many of the Gen-O tickets, to the corner of the orchestra section, and either because the staging was badly adapted to Kennedy's stage, or because the production was designed to appeal solely to audience at the center of the orchestra, we missed everything that happened further than the first third of the stage. We didn't see Steva's dramatic entrance in West Side Story-esque fashion, and missed some of Kostelnicka's better moments. Fortunately for us, there was some sort of security to do during the intermission and we moved up to rear orchestra, where we were better able to see.

A shame, really, that one of the best operas I've ever seen (I commented in jest to my companions for the evening that it was the first opera with a plausible plot line I'd ever seen) was turned into a opera-fied Grease or West Side Story. Kostelnicka was a persuasive villain, Jenufa could have been any number of the people I knew from high school, and yet, all this torn asunder by so awful a production.

And yes, I too wondered about the industrial doors opening and closing randomly. I actually eventually attributed it to a mechanical problem in the stage and some quick thinking on part of the lighting manager, but if it was there two separate nights, then it seems to have been by design - and I did not understand it's place at all.

Akimon Azuki said...

AND- what's with very badly "acted" smoking in this production? Seems the cigars Steva was fumigating the stage with were real, I could actually smell them and he only looked vaguely uncomfortable doing that. But for the most part, the singers tried their best to timidly puff a tiny little puff while avoiding inhalation and looked ridiculous in the process. A cigarette dangling from the lips may look the part, but in this production, it was a total miss. And even smoke chimneys like Rene Pape should not be forced to smoke while singing.
Other than that, what a great opera, and Racette and Malfitano really rocked the KC.