Less than 48 hours before every opera and singer in the Czech Republic were shut down by the latest surge of the coronavirus, the Janáček Festival in Brno stood strong with a tragedy of a different order: Jenůfa. With Karita Mattila cast as Kostelnička, the performance promised an emotional impact resonant with the pandemic, and in that it did not disappoint.

Karita Mattila (Kostelnička) and Richard Samek (Števa) © Marek Olbrzymek
Karita Mattila (Kostelnička) and Richard Samek (Števa)
© Marek Olbrzymek

Janáčekʼs haunting depiction of social pressure, shame and infanticide got off to an uncharacteristic start, with villagers happily harvesting apples in the warm glow of autumn colors. In that atmosphere, Jenůfa (Pavla Vykopalová) seemed concerned but not overly troubled about her nascent pregnancy; her boyfriend Števa (Richard Samek) came off as a sloppy but not unlikable drunk; and his half-brother Laca (Peter Berger) was merely petulant about not being able to win Jenůfaʼs affections. The dramatic tension that needs to start building did not emerge until Kostelnička took the stage, silently at first, a dark figure brooding in the background while Števa and his friends celebrated his narrow escape from conscription. When she suddenly stopped the party it was as the Voice of Doom, which also seemed slightly askew, like an angry witch casting a spell rather than a concerned mother trying to protect her stepdaughter.

As if to catch up, the second act was all intensity, with everything revolving around a riveting performance by Mattila. She has sung Kostelnička many times, and if her voice does not have the strength it once did, the depth and nuance she brings to the character is unmatchable. Mattila doesnʼt so much perform the role as inhabit it. Her agony was palpable and her desperation a flame that grew until it drove her to the unthinkable.

Pavla Vykopalová (Jenůfa) and Karita Mattila (Kostelnička) © Marek Olbrzymek
Pavla Vykopalová (Jenůfa) and Karita Mattila (Kostelnička)
© Marek Olbrzymek

Mattila finished the act a bit over the top – or more accurately, under, collapsing to the floor as if she had died. Still, there was no denying the power of her emotional exhaustion and despair. And she was set up perfectly by Vykopalová, who offered a tender contrasting portrayal of a young mother devoted to her newborn, highlighted by a lustrous, moving prayer to the Virgin Mary.

The third act finally struck the right balance, with a bare-bones set throwing into sharp relief the dissonance between brightly costumed revelers and a muted wedding harboring a dark secret. Mattila stood to one side, distracted and distraught before falling to her knees and confessing. Even as a broken figure, she dominated the stage until she was led away. Left to themselves, Vykopalová and Berger sang an anticlimactic duet before walking off into... a rain shower? The water was real, but director Martin Glaserʼs intent was hard to discern.

Pavla Vykopalová (Jenůfa) © Marek Olbrzymek
Pavla Vykopalová (Jenůfa)
© Marek Olbrzymek

Much of the production was in that vein – visually interesting, but often at the expense of undercutting the material. The entire second act unfolded in a row of identical attached rooms, an effective metaphor for being trapped in a claustrophobic fate, especially when the rooms began to shift and multiply in a filmstrip effect. But having the characters interacting with each other from separate, isolated boxes drained much of the dramatic impact.

Karita Mattila (Kostelnička) © Marek Olbrzymek
Karita Mattila (Kostelnička)
© Marek Olbrzymek

A largely local cast did a fine job of matching Mattilaʼs wounded vocals, in particular Vykopalová, who managed to capture the complex blend of Jenůfaʼs pain and generosity. Samek and Berger both turned in strong performances, and Jiří Sulženko, who brings gravitas to any role he sings, added a voice of moral authority as the mill foreman Stárek. The National Theater Brno chorus was superb, as was the house orchestra under the baton of Marko Ivanović. A specialist in 20th-century music with a native feel for the Czech repertoire, his rendition of the score was so carefully detailed that it made titles superfluous – the narrative was perfectly clear in the music.

And in a final flourish of life imitating art, rain was falling outside after the performance. Maybe Glaser was onto something after all.

****1