Wednesday, June 22, 2016
The Overwhelming Beauty of Jenůfa
There is a famous quote from the composer Richard Wagner to his lover Mathilde Wiesendock after he had finished composing the opera Tristan und Isolde. "I fear the opera will be banned unless the whole thing is parodied in a bad performance: only mediocre performances can save me! Perfectly good ones will be bound to drive people mad, I cannot imagine it otherwise." That quote came to mind last Sunday afternoon during the SF Opera production of Leoš Janáček's 1904 opera Jenůfa because the performance was so fine that the emotional power of the music was almost too much to bear.
The story itself is a simple Czechoslovakian village tale, taken from a naturalistic, unsentimental, late-19th century play by Gabriela Preissová, about a young woman who becomes pregnant before marriage by her handsome, wealthy boyfriend who turns out to be a drunken cad. Jenůfa's stepmother, the moral arbiter of the village, hides her away for a secret birth, and then tries to get someone to marry her. Tragedy ensues.
This was the stuff of countless women's melodramas on stage and film over the centuries, and there is no reason for the story to be so powerful except one. The music by Janáček, a provincial, barely successful Czech composer at the turn of the 20th century, is filled with such longing, sadness, beauty, and complexity that once you have absorbed it, the music of most other operas feels wan by comparison.
I first heard the opera in 1980 at the SF Opera with the incomparable Elisabeth Söderström as Jenůfa and Sena Jurinac as her stepmother Kostelnička in performances that I thought would never be equaled, but Malin Byström and Karita Mattila in this production have managed to do so, with glorious soprano voices and powerful acting abilities.
As good as the two principal singers are, what elevates this production to the stratosphere is the entire supporting cast, including Scott Quinn as the caddish Števa Buryja and William Burden (above) as his brother Laca Klemeň who is also in love with Jenůfa. Contributing to this holistic success were the SF Opera Chorus, who managed the very tricky rhythms of their folk-inflected music brilliantly, along with Adler fellows and choristers playing everything from the village Mayor to maids to extended relatives.
The opera premiered in Brno, Czechoslovakia in 1904 but Janáček's original, eccentric orchestration with its surprising percussion and hairpin turns, was extensively revised for its Prague National Theater premiere in 1916 by the music director there, Karel Kovařovic. It wasn't until 1980 that the late, great conductor Charles Mackerras helped prepare an edition that respected the composer's original intentions. Mackerras also led a production of this score at SF Opera in 1986 with the wonderful Gabriela Beňačková and Leonie Rysanek in the cast. As much as I loved the conducting of Mackerras, the current job by Czech Philharmonic music director Jiří Bělohlávek (above) with the San Francisco Opera orchestra is stunning.
Six years ago at the San Francisco Opera, Bělohlávek conducted Janáček's The Makropolous Case, also starring Karita Mattila (above), in a production directed by Olivier Tambosi and designed by Frank Philipp Schlossmann, that was so good that I fell in love with the opera for the first time. The same conductor and diva soon took that show to the Metropolitan Opera in New York and I waited to hear the same kind of raving accolades which greeted it in San Francisco, but that didn't happen. A friend of mine who saw the production in both cities mentioned that the difference was in the supporting cast, which simply didn't gel in New York the way they did in San Francisco.
This same production of Jenůfa with Mattila will also be performed at the Metropolitan next season and let's hope they do it as well as San Francisco. In any case, there are has four more performances here, including one tonight (Wednesday), and I cannot urge you strongly enough to attend one of them.
Though I am not crazy about the heavy-handed stone symbolism of the set design concept by director Tambosi and designer Schlossmann, every other element of the production is perfection. Click here for tickets, or just walk to the box office on the day of performance and grab a standing room ticket for $10. This is one of those legendary productions people will be talking about for years. (All production photos are by Cory Weaver.)