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Leoš JANČEK (1854-1928)
Jenůfa (1903)
Viorica Cortez: Stalenka; Jorma Silvastri: Laca; Pr Lindskog: Števa; Eva Marton: Kostelnička; Nina Stemme: Jenůfa; Rolf Haunstein: Stárek; Christiane Boesiger: Karolka.
Cor del Gran Teatre del Liceu
Orquestra Sinfònica/Peter Schneider
Olivier Tambosi (director)
rec. live, Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, 27 May, 2 June 2005

The Gran Teatre del Liceu is a good, solid opera house, and this series by TDK, filmed in conjunction with the house is generally reliable. Jenůfa, Janàček’s first real operatic success, is popular for many good reasons. With this particular cast list, this should have been an interesting production, and indeed, it really isn’t bad. But it didn’t inspire. Ultimately, what makes a performance work depends not on superficial measures but on how it reflects what’s in the music. There’s no easy way to assess the merits or demerits without some understanding of the opera works as drama and music.

In this case, I was wondering how an opera which features sex, violence and child murder could be as uninvolving as this production was. It’s not Janàček’s fault, for his music is so inherently vivid. On subsequent hearings, listening specifically to the orchestral playing rather than to the singing, I was surprised at how smooth it sounded, as all the jerky edges of Janàček’s style had been polished. It’s pleasant enough, but in the process, the rawness that’s at the heart of the music is neutralised. It smoothed over important detail, like the famous "icicle" notes subverting the images of summer heat, and detail "speaks"in this core. The plot pits social pretension against against wild emotion, and Janàček’s music takes the side of passion. So the playing would be more idiomatic if it wasn’t so soothing.

The staging, too, took the side of repression, again soothing and siding with convention, whatever the real meaning in the opera and its music. It was, literally, bland and monotone. Jenůfa appears in maternity clothes which gives the game away from the start. Kostelnička isn’t supposed to know she’s pregnant: the whole plot pivots on this basic misunderstanding. Indeed, misunderstandings are crucial to many turns in the plot, highlighted by touches in the music, but this straightforward approach to the opera smoothes them over. The one big hint about emotional undercurrents is the presence on stage of a huge rock, bursting up from the stage. In Act Two, it’s fully revealed because we know what the results are. In Act Three, it’s reduced to small pieces of rock which the townsfolk pick up in order to stone "the murderer", while they still think it’s someone vulnerable like Jenůfa. In a more incisive production the image might work but in one here it jarred with the overall blandness and lack of emotional engagement.

Technically, the singing was good enough, but without decisive conviction about what the opera means, it’s hard to create character. Stemme can act better than she does here: the role’s dramatic range didn’t fully register, and she wasn’t helped by costume or makeup. She’s supposed to look like a maiden in full bloom, like the flowers that keep popping up in the libretto. On the other hand, Marton’s Kostelnička was costumed to look most horribly brutal. Of course, as the verger’s widow she’s supposed to be a bastion of propriety and has to keep up appearances. But the music and plot make clear that what really motivates her is her overwhelming love for Jenůfa. It’s that intense love that makes her send Steva away 'til he’s reformed, that makes her bring him back even if she hates him, and ultimately, to kill the baby so Jenůfa might have a chance to find happiness with Laca. Marton’s voice may be rough at the upper range now, but it was a welcome antidote to the one dimensional portrayal of her role. In a sanitised production like this, it was a welcome glimpse of humanity for a character reduced to caricature. More worrying, though, was the portrayal of the old grandmother, Stalenka, as a blind woman wandering around stage with a stick asking for help. In the libretto, Laca calls her blind because she doesn’t see how she’s spoiled Steva and what he’s up to. That kind of blindness is in her character not her eyes. Far from relating to others, she’s fixated only on Steva. Lindskog doesn’t have much with which to develop Steva as a personality, but the role of Laca is pregnant with possibilities, to use an unfortunate turn of phrase. First he’s lustful, then resentful, then violent, then revealed as a noble soul. Silvastri has the ability to extend the role well beyond what it was here. The only performer to get a chance to act and sing with real personality was Boesiger’s Karolka, almost stealing the show in a minor role, simply because she was able to show a liveliness lacking in the other characterisations.

Nonetheless, this certainly isn’t a bad production and its very safeness and lack of challenge could make it popular with audiences who aren’t too familiar with it or the composer’ idiom. In some ways it’s as close as Janàček gets to mainstream, and this production so neutral that it might as well have been in another language, in both senses of the word. But any performance adds to the process of learning. So I’m glad I listened to this even if it’s not quite as distinguished as it might have been. In its own way, it’s a case study that tells us something about how scores are brought into performance, and how music gets turned into drama.

Anne Ozorio


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