Christof Loy’s modern dress Jenůfa
strips the action back to its barest essentials, and so universalises it into something of real power. The traces of Moravian realism are still there in the costumes at the wedding, but otherwise Jenůfa’s story could have happened to anyone anywhere. Intensifying the mood even more, the entire action takes place in a giant white cube, which occasionally opens up at the back to suggest the landscape, be it the fertile fields of summer or the frigid winter. This places the focus squarely on the interaction between the characters, and for a drama like this one that’s entirely appropriate.
It’s also successful. Loy creates a pressure cooker environment in the second act, where every gesture is amplified and intensified in its power, and the intrusions of the villagers and the minor characters in the outer acts inject some welcome colour, but also throw the actions of the main characters into relief, such as Laca’s very revealing interaction with the Foreman in the first act. The doors, windows and walls slide in and out of the monochrome set, and Loy seems to set most of the first act in the mind of the Kostelnička in flashback from her prison cell. However, he seems to drop the idea fairly quickly, and he doesn’t go anywhere with it.
The singing cast are all excellent, crowned by a spellbinding Kostelnička from Jennifer Larmore. For a start, she sings the role with genuine musicality – no hint of a shrieking harpy – and she does so very beautifully at that. She is also electric to watch, twisting her face into contempt or resentment during the second act, while radiating authority in the first, and then being utterly crushed in the last. I haven’t seen as fine a Kostelnička since Anja Silja at Glyndebourne in 1989 (ArtHaus 100208), and that’s high praise.
Michaela Kaune sings a glowing, beautiful Jenůfa. She is always completely sympathetic, beautiful in her prayers and her evocation of the child in the second act, and you wonder how on earth Števa could resist her pleading in the first. Will Hartmann’s bright, burnished tenor almost comes across as too macho for Laca, but that makes him a joy to hear. Ladislav Egr makes a baritonal Števa, but that makes for a good contrast with Laca and he acts as convincingly as he sings. All three of the love-triangle look rather too old for the story – Jenůfa and the Kostelnička look more like sisters than parent and child – but you can forgive that for the dramatic truth they evoke. The lesser roles are all very well taken, especially a booming Grandmother Buryjovka from the veteran Hanna Schwarz in a deep red wig.
The orchestral playing is really outstanding, too. Captured in HD surround sound, every detail emerges from the rippling xylophone of the mill wheel to the glorious burst of C major that ends the opera — and which is staged with beautifully simple understatement. The orchestra are brilliantly incisive to accompany the Kostelnička’s spat out threats of the second act, but the strings also manage a sound of beauty for the music associated with the baby. Runnicles, too, directs the piece with total conviction, bringing the authority of the Music Director in his own theatre.
There is a rather annoying spell in the third act where the subtitles are out of place with the action, but beyond that there isn’t much to criticise. Anyone who loves this opera will want the Glyndebourne DVD (4:3 aspect; pcm stereo), which is head and shoulders above almost all the other filmed competition, but if you want a pin-prick-precise picture and HD surround sound, then this Berlin disc is probably now the top choice.