Autumn is here, so it's back on the cultural circuit for this Fool. Next weekend will be a big museum weekend -- Salvador Dalí, Edward Weston and [nudge nudge] tasteful artisticated nudity are likely to be involved -- but this past Saturday night it was time to return to LA Opera for the closing performance of Leos Janácek's Jenufa.
Out West Arts took Angelenos to task for leaving "far too many empty seats at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion" at the opening performances of this production. I am pleased to report that the good word apparently got around: while the house was not sold out, there were relatively few vacancies in the orchestra seats Saturday night. In fact, from where I sat, it felt as though there were more in the audience at the end of the performance than at the beginning.
Jenufa occupies a spot on my personal Very Short List of operas I have seen fully staged more than once. Long Beach Opera mounted a well-played production in 2002 notable for a set in which the houses of Jenufa's little Moravian village receded to the horizon, lying on their sides. LBO has paid recurring attention to Janácek over the years, having also performed From the House of the Dead in 1997 and The Diary of One Who Vanished in 1995. For its part, LA Opera staged Katya Kabanova with Leonie Rysanek back in 1989 (which I did not see) and The Makropulos Case in 1992 (which I did). Between the two companies, the only major Janácek opera still lacking a recent southern California production is The Cunning Little Vixen. Perhaps in another ten years...
The just-closed production of Jenufa came to us from the Metropolitan Opera, where it was much acclaimed earlier this year but also suffered from too many empty seats. ("Ha!" says I to your myth of New York sophistication.) Los Angeles audiences got to see it, in large part, because our current principal conductor and Musical Director, James Conlon, is a great enthusiast for the work: in a pre-performance discussion Saturday evening, he revealed that the single most memorable performance thus far in his conducting career was a 1995 presentation of Jenufa at the Met, for which the curtain call (or so he claims) lasted 23 minutes.
Jenufa, as drama, really can be that effective, especially when it is as well-performed as it was on Saturday night. The principal raison d'etre for this production is to showcase Finnish soprano Karita Mattila in the title role. Ms. Mattila is, as had been promised, a singer and actor of tremendous gifts and her performance of what is a signature role for her was as fully realized as one could wish. One of the recurring shortcomings of opera is the mismatch between the age, manner or physique of a character and the comparable attributes of the performer: No matter how often we are told we must wait "until the fat lady sings," the character of Brünnhilde is no fat lady -- but some of the very best singers of that role have been, posing an extra challenge in the already difficult task of making the character believable.
The character of Jenufa is a small town teenage beauty, still essentially a girl, good, pretty, bright -- she can read and write -- and young. Karita Mattila, I learn from the New York Times review linked above, is 46, easily more than twice the age of the character she is called upon to occupy. She overcomes the temporal disconnect with ease, with a remarkable loose and limber physical performance -- no "park and bark" here, thank you -- all the while singing Jenufa's sad and beautiful music sadly and beautifully.
The other reason to have seen this production -- and the main aspect in which it differed from its New York original -- was Eva Urbanova as Jenufa's stepmother, the Kostelnicka. The Kostelnicka is a stepmother who does evil, but she is not an Evil Stepmother. While Jenufa goes through a series of misfortunes -- an unlooked for pregnancy by a handsome nitwit who ultimately spurns her, the savage scarring of her face by the nitwit's brother (otherwise a decent chap: Jenufa will willingly marry him in the end), and above all the death of her eight-day old son -- she emerges wiser, stronger and more fully human than she began. In contrast the Kostelnicka begins as the stern and justly honored moral center of the village, only to be brought low by a single well-intentioned but unforgivable error: seeing the act as the only remaining solution to Jenufa's impossible situation, it is the Kostelnicka who murders Jenufa's child, drowning him in the icy river while his mother sleeps. The role is such a meaty one, and the character so tragically compelling, that the opera could just as well have been called The Kostelnicka. That emphasis would find warrant in the title of the play by Gabriella Preissová from which Janácek adapted his libretto: Jeji Pastorkyna, meaning Her Stepdaughter.
In his pre-performance remarks, Maestro Conlon asserted that Act II of Jenufa
is one of the few nearly-perfect acts in all of opera, one in which
text, action and music combine with nary a false step. Having listened
and watched with that opinion in mind, I am compelled to agree. It provides an excellent example of why the best opera -- meaning in this case, as AC Douglas so frequently insists, genuine dramma per musica -- needs to be seen, rather than simply heard.
Photo Credit: Los Angeles Opera production photo by Robert Millard.