If one had to describe this production of Jenůfa in a single word, it would be: glowing – which might seem rather ironic, given that Frank Philipp Schlössman's sets consist of gray stones of various sizes and shapes, amidst the drably rustic, exaggeratedly high wooden walls of a mill. But the musical, insightful conducting of Czech Philharmonic’s Music Director Jiří Bělohlávek created a glowing inner light right from the initial notes of the prelude. And when the curtain rose on the opening moment of this moving story, many in the audience gasped at the realism of the radiant yellow-gold light (thanks to the genius of renowned lighting designer Gary Marder) that was emanating from the image of a grain field projected on the stage backdrop. Indeed, throughout the entire production, the lighting effects helped every scene, every singer, and every emotive arc in the score to positively glow with life, even amidst the gray world of the characters, imprisoned within the psychologically high mill walls.

Scott Quinn (Števa) and Malin Byström (Jenůfa) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Scott Quinn (Števa) and Malin Byström (Jenůfa)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

This performance showed Janáček as a light for composers of future generations. In Jenůfa, his use of fast repeated-note motifs to develop suspense or create character-motifs foreshadowed film score composers and contemporary minimalists. His unique marriage of spoken language and musical idiom created an emotive authenticity to every single note, phrase and operatic scene.

The SF Opera summer production gave several of its 2016 Adler Fellows an exciting chance to shine admirably on opening night, particularly bass Antony Reed, mezzo-soprano Zanda Švēde, and soprano Toni Marie Palmertree. The renowned SF Opera Chorus was used minimally in Jenůfa but was staged well. During one folk-like segment, scored for women only, the light girlish sound did not project enough to carry, or give any real vocal energy to the scene – perhaps a hard-tone Eastern European “village-voice” approach would have worked better.

Even the voices of leading males were sometimes overwhelmed by the orchestra – not because the orchestra was too loud (it wasn’t), or Janáček’s revised orchestration is too thick (it isn’t) but simply because their voices didn’t seem to be full enough in a particular vocal register or passage, on this particular opening night. As the performances progress through the series, this will probably change. Tenor Scott Quinn’s voice gradually “grew” on me from one scene to the next, even as a dislike and horror of his odious character, Števa, grew in equal proportions. Tenor William Burden’s outstanding voice “had me from hello” as the saying goes, even though his character Laca definitely did not: at first he caused fear and repulsion, and only gradually revealed a genuinely good heart. So it is a real testament to the tremendous acting skills of both tenors, and to the generally excellent stage direction of Olivier Tambosi, that these two powerfully-etched characters evoked very strong initial reactions that changed and evolved throughout the opera, showing us truths about ourselves and our first thoughts about the people we encounter. And Janáček’s psychologically-crafted music was the propelling life-force behind it all.

Malin Byström (Jenůfa) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Malin Byström (Jenůfa)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

Psychology played a huge part in the leading women’s roles as well – mezzo-soprano Jill Grove used tremendous stage presence and body-language (even when silent) to evoke the role of Grandmother Buryjovka. Swedish soprano Malin Byström, making her SF Opera debut in the title role, created a huge impression from the very first moments, both by her uniquely-colored voice and by her charismatic ability to draw all eyes to her long, lean physical presence. She sang the technically demanding, musically soaring role of Jenůfa superbly, whether lying flat on her back or writhing in pain or bent under internal angst. It seemed an incredibly confident first performance of a role that she is hopefully destined to repeat, everywhere.

Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, singing the pivotal role of Kostelnička for the first time on stage, has sung the title role worldwide, so she has intimate experience interacting with Jenůfa’s stepmother as well. But this doesn’t explain her unearthly ability to inhabit both the music and the role to such a powerful, psychologically-layered degree that one forgets there is a human being, in costume, on stage, pouring forth those glorious high notes and unspeakably beautiful, emotive vocal colors. She is so utterly believable that it seems the rather hateful self-centered Kostelnička is in fact real. The audience reacts to the character and almost loses focus on the incredible voice that is creating that character for us while displaying a rather frightening array of vocal talents.

Karita Mattila (Kostelnička) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Karita Mattila (Kostelnička)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

Ms Mattila seemed genuinely touched and even surprised by the tremendous ovation and outpouring of love from the audience, orchestra and cast, but it was truly deserved. The cast and audience also shared a huge appreciation for Maestro Bělohlávek, and his wonderful shaping of Janáček’s music for another generation of followers. Go hear this – the final performance is 1st July!