Friday, June 24, 2016

A Brilliant Jenufa from SF Opera

Malin Bystrom as Jenufa. All photos by Cory Brewer.
Janacek’s Jenufa
San Francisco Opera
June 22, 2016

After seeing a performance of this brilliant 1904 opera, the question would be, Why don’t we see Jenufa more often? I’d be more than willing to sacrifice a few Carmens, Butterflys and Traviatas if it meant seeing and hearing more Janacek.

Of course, the main culprit could be the composer. He was simply too far ahead of his time. Though the mood of this thriller retains the feel of Romanticism and verismo, Janacek’s use of speech-inspired vocal lines, folk modalities and through-composing was quite predictive of the century to come. His use of repetitive rhythmic patterns beneath the singers anticipate the sonic cycling of minimalists like Glass and Adams by seventy years!

The story, based on a play by Gabriela Preissova, is a bit like The Scarlet Letter with a killing edge. Village girl Jenufa is in love with pretty-boy Steva, while his more common stepbrother Laca is mad for Jenufa. But Jenufa is pregnant with Steva’s child, and the whirlwind of opinion is already under way. Her frantic mother, the Kostelnicka, suffered years of marriage to a drunken weakling and sees Steva as the same. Laca, meanwhile, is so crazy-jealous that he slices Jenufa’s cheek, if only to scar the face that his stepbrother loves. It’s a tribute to the complexity of Preissova’s story and Janacek’s libretto that this heinous act does not necessarily rule Laca out.

The performances, both vocal and dramatic, are dazzling. Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, last seen in SFO’s 2010 production of Janacek’s The Makropolus Case, delivers a compelling performance of the Kostelnicka’s second-act monologue, taking all of her character’s torment and lunacy and externalizing it – quite a trick of you can pull it off. Her pleas to Steva – meant to force him into “manning up” and taking responsibility for his bastard child – evoke the image of waves battering the shore, her vocal lines mirroring the propulsive, rolling feel of Janacek’s score.

As Steva, Scott Quinn displays a clear and resonant tenor, endowing his handsome narcissist with a man-about-town charisma. Playing Laca, William Burden offers something even more, a lirico spinto carrying such force and energy that it’s a little stunning. The vocal difference accentuates the character difference – Laca simply has more passion, especially in the second-act meeting with Jenufa (as the Kostelnicka tries desperately to salvage her daughter’s life) and the more lyrical, toned-down duet with Jenufa in the final scene.

William Burden as Laca
Swedish soprano Malin Bystrom gives Jenufa a musical sweetness to go with a tomboyish country-girl quality (especially as she pummels her useless babydaddy Steva). Bystrom does a fine job of conveying Jenufa’s suffering. When she’s holding her bloody cheek and writhing in pain you can feel it all the way down your spine.

Czech conductor Jiri Belohlavek and his orchestra did an excellent job of bringing out the inventiveness of Janacek’s score. The entire first act carries the ominous, ever-forward thrust of a Hitchcock movie score, a repeated note ticking away on the xylophone like a time bomb. The thunderous, brutal percussion at the end of Act 2 nails down the horror of the Kostelnicka’s deed, and a majestic passage of horns escort the townfolk off as they leave Laca and Jenufa to the ruins.

Frank Philipp Schlössmann’s set design is part puzzle, part magic show. The puzzle comes in the form of an enormous boulder, rising through the floor in Act 1, taking up much of the stage in Jenufa’s Act 2 hideout and broken into smaller rocks for the Act 3 wedding. My own guess was that it symbolized Jenufa’s struggle; stage director Olivier Tambosi, who first used the device in a 1998 production, explains it as representing the oppression of living in a small village. The magic comes in the backgrounds. In Act 1, the opening between the two grand wooden sidewalls offers a beautiful midday sky and a band of golden wheat. Halfway through Act 2, the walls split open to offer an enchanting stripe of falling snow. The opera closes as a salmon sunrise colors the horizon.

Karita Mattila as the Kostelnicka
Steva’s response to the Kostelnicka’s pleas in Act 2 was priceless: “(Jenufa) used to be so sweet and happy, but suddenly she became just like you.” Ouch!

Through July 1, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue. $26-$395. 415/864-3330,

Michael J. Vaughn is a 30-year opera critic and author of 18 novels, including Operaville and Gabriella’s Voice

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