A pregnant, unmarried girl, a rigid, uncompromising stepmother, two brothers jealous of each other: Jenůfa brings to the stage a crude, unsentimental tragedy. The plot, set in rural Moravia at the turn of the 20th century, relies on values and priorities that are hard to relate to in modern times. It narrates of a world where murdering a baby is a reasonable solution to the shame of an illegitimate birth; where a "fallen woman" has so few options that she will accept the love of a violent stalker, and this is presented as a happy ending.
The tragedy is written in Jenůfa's very flesh and blood. She is pregnant by Števa, who admires her as a sexual object ("your rosy cheeks"), and not much more. Števa's brother Laca is obsessed with her, won't take no for an answer, and ends up slashing her cheek, disfiguring her and bringing about her ruin. Janáček's music, together with Gabriela Preissová's development of the play the opera is based on, is the magic ingredient that makes these contradictions believable and gives the characters enough psychological depth to justify their actions and make them understandable.
Royal Swedish Opera presents a co-production with the Scottish Opera and Den Jyske Opera, where the director Annilese Miskimmon sets the story in Ireland in 1918. The modified location does not seem to affect the overall plot: an Irish village is believable as a micro-cosmos ruled by unyielding religious righteousness but, on the other hand, the purpose of this change is not clear. The simple, realistic stage settings and costumes enhance the strong emotions, revealing the tragedy in all its details, unadorned and raw.
The music seems also somehow unadorned and raw at times, but it is powerful and perfect at underlying the violent emotionsof the characters. Dutch conductor Lawrence Renes presented a unified view of the opera: the flow of the music was never interrupted, giving meaning and intensity to the actions of the characters. Renes provided great support to the singers. Under his baton, the music seemed to push the action forward with a sense of ineluctability, giving another dimension of tragedy to the story. The Royal Swedish Opera Orchestra was, as usual, at its best in post-romantic music.
Malin Byström portrayed a tender, loving Jenůfa, devastated by the death of her baby and crushed by her sin. Her voice featured a beautiful, unusual timbre, and she delivered with strength and confidence. Her Jenůfa was convincing; she inhabited the character fully and managed to convey her personality. Byström showed great charisma, becoming the centre of attention whenever she was on stage. The mercy she shows towards her stepmother and her acceptance of loving and repentant Laca as a husband were a believable expression of Christian forgiveness.
Her stepmother, the Kostelnička, was Lena Nordin, an experienced dramatic coloratura soprano who has recently, in her maturity, added heavier roles to her repertoire. Her soprano is still centred towards the high register, so her high notes were full and unforced, but her voice lacked a bit of strength in the middle register, where one hoped to hear a more metallic and deep sound. Maybe it is a matter of expectations: Kostelnička is usually associated with a Slavic timbre, while Nordin's voice has a more classical colour. As a result, her Kostelnička lacked authority and ended up not being as scary as she should have been. Nevertheless, her interpretation of the severe moral authority figure, when she decides to kill the baby, was fantastic. Her madness scene was extremely effective. Kostelnička believes in heaven and hell; she knows that murder means losing the grace of God, giving up any hope of eternal life. But her pride and the love of her daughter are stronger. Her final scene, in which she confesses her crime, was strongly reminiscent of Norma's finale; her demeanour and accent was very much "Norma non mente".
Jenůfa's lover, Števa Buryja, was Andrea Carè, whose open and Italianate sound was effective and charming. His character is despicable, immature, and irresponsible; he was drunk for the whole first act. He gets Jenůfa pregnant and abandons her to her destiny because she's disfigured. Despite the unsympathetic character, Carè's performance was extremely powerful: his natural, generous singing made Števa understandable, if not justifiable. Jesper Taube was Števa's brother, Laca; he has recently changed from baritone to tenor roles, and his tenor is quite high and bright. His voice lacks a bit of presence and characterization, but his performance was enjoyable. Luthando Qave was remarkable in the small role of the mill foreman; his baritone is smooth and very balanced, definitely worthy of better roles.
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