Let's not pretend. Despite the photograph of Adriana Kohútková on the programme cover, the main draw of this concert performance of Janáček's opera Jenůfa was the appearance of Karita Mattila in the role of The Kostelnička Buryjovka. It wasn't quite her role debut – that took place on Friday evening in Prague's Rudolfinum – but it was an early look at a significant departure for the Finnish soprano, who was for years a leading exponent of Jenůfa herself. And who better to partner her in this venture than Jiří Bělohlávek, the Czech Philharmonic and an all-Czech cast?

Karita Mattila (Kostelnička) © Petr Kadlec
Karita Mattila (Kostelnička)
© Petr Kadlec

Mattila last sang the title role in late 2014 (Staatsoper Hamburg). Now she switches to the Kostelnička, who drowns Jenůfa's newborn, believing it will give her stepdaughter a better life, one in which she can find respectability in marriage with the doggedly faithful Laca after she has been deserted by Števa, the baby's father. Performing Jenůfa so many times has doubtless influenced Mattila's reading of this new role. Mattila’s Kostelnička is not a monster, but a woman driven to do a monstrous deed to save her stepdaughter's honour. It mattered little that the glamorous Mattila had her head buried in her score, this was still a riveting performance of one of opera's great conflicted characters. There was no attempt to bark and snarl her way through the part, nor to dominate the action. Her steely soprano has plenty of soft edges which she used to great effect in Act II, delving into the Kostelnička's dilemma as one lie leads to another which leads to the murder. There was no scenery to chew, but at one point anyone near her was in danger as she unleashed her anguish. Mattila's horror at at the end of this act was gripping, delivering the line “As if death were peering into the house” with terrifying dread. She sings the role on stage for the first time in San Francisco in June, then in New York and Munich next season. I can only imagine what she’ll be like once the role is fully under her skin.

It’s difficult to appreciate how daunting the challenges were facing Adriana Kohútková, performing the role of Jenůfa with Mattila by her side. She was understandably tentative at first, the upper reaches of her soprano lacking a little bloom, but she visibly and audibly grew in confidence. She delivered a moving prayer and the final scene, where Laca declares that he will stand by Jenůfa, was extremely movng. The singers at the end of the row were in pieces by this stage.

Adriana Kohútková (Jenůfa) © Petr Kadlec
Adriana Kohútková (Jenůfa)
© Petr Kadlec

Aleš Briscein’s Laca was splendid. There’s something quite glorious about Czech tenors – even those in the Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno – with their bright, open sound. Briscein has an heroic ring and a lively stage presence. Jaroslav Březina couldn’t quite match him as his half-brother Števa, the good-time skirt-chaser who is quick to abandon Jenůfa after Laca disfigures her “rosy apple” cheek with the knife. He sang with plenty of bravado, but it’s not a role to attract any great sympathy. The concert performance – no hint of a staging – limited the opera's impact somewhat, but there was still plenty of vocal drama. 

Among the rest of the cast, Yvona Škvárová’s fruity contralto gave plenty of character to Grandmother Buryjovka, and Svatopluk Sem’s knowing foreman was sung with authority. It was Marta Reichelová’s Jano, the herdboy whom Jenůfa has taught to read, who stood out – a gleaming soprano and engaging platform manner which showed she was having the time of her life.

Jiří Bělohlávek © Petr Kadlec
Jiří Bělohlávek
© Petr Kadlec

From the xylophone's click and whirr of the millwheel which sets an insistent pulse for much of Act I, we were in safe hands. Bělohlávek and his Czech forces know this opera backwards, and he wristily nudged every nuance, every flecked harp detail (Jana Boušková) to reveal Janáček's score in all its glory. The burnished strings caressed lines with as much care as the singers and the woodwinds teemed with character.

It's not for nothing that Janáček's opera is properly titled Její pastorkyňa (Her Stepdaughter). Putting Mattila's magnetic Kostelnička firmly at the centre made great sense and turned this concert performance into something all the more gripping.

 

This performance is available to listen to on BBC iPlayer for 30 days.

****1