Thanks to the determination of Sir Charles Mackerras in the 1980’s, the operas of Leoš Janáček in Western Europe are no longer a novelty. Even repertoire-conservative La Scala mounted a production of Jenůfa in 2007 with Emily Magee and Anja Silja. Paradoxically, in Janáček’s homeland of what is now the Czech Republic and in recently-rent Slovakia, his music is not particularly popular according to respected Czech director Martin Otava. Apparently for most listeners, it is considered “not melodic enough”. This could explain the fact that at the performance in question, the relatively small 860 seat new opera house was far from full.

Adriana Kohutkova (Jenůfa) © Jozef Barinka | Slovakian National Theatre Bratislava
Adriana Kohutkova (Jenůfa)
© Jozef Barinka | Slovakian National Theatre Bratislava
Although professing a great admiration for Mascagni and Cavalleria rusticana in particular, Janáček’s concept of Slavic verismo is diametrically different. There are certainly no soaring melodic phrases or catchy tunes to hum on the way home. There are many short, often repeated bursts of lyricism which seem about to lead into something broader (such as the concertante passage at the end of Act I or Jenůfa’s adagio “vidiš Števo” melody in Act III) but Janáček never submits to the temptation of writing an extended vocal line which could subsume the dramatic pulse of the opera. Even Jenůfa’s prayer scene towards the end of the explosive Act II avoids a Salce salce saccharine sentimentality in favour of absolute fidelity to the primacy of the text. The longest melodic passage is the arching orchestral postlude to the drama, which is almost Wagnerian in its scope and Macht.

The unique quality of Janáček’s work however is not only his use of traditional Moravian folk music, rhythms and unusual instrumentation (eg. xylophone), but as his own librettist, a profound knowledge of Czech dialects, speech patterns and varying regional inflections. This makes the text in prose of his operas of paramount dramatic and interpretative importance and a formidable challenge to non-Czech speakers.

Adriana Kohútková (Jenůfa) and chorus © Jozef Barinka | Slovakian National Theatre Bratislava
Adriana Kohútková (Jenůfa) and chorus
© Jozef Barinka | Slovakian National Theatre Bratislava
The current production of Jenůfa designed by Ján Zavarský was first seen in Bratislava in 2012 and is anything but controversial. With traditional Moravian peasant costumes by Peter Čanecký which included rather bizarre floral headdresses for the nuptial celebrations in Act III, there was nothing whatsoever in the stage or costume designs with which to take offence. Self-confessed traditional director Martin Otava took no indulgent extra-textual liberties and in every scene the dramatic interaction between the principal characters faithfully followed the librettist/composer’s instructions.

Despite sometimes being seen as a rather poor musical cousin of nearby glamorous Vienna, Slovakia and Bratislava in particular have produced some first-rate singers such as Lucia Popp, Gabriela Beňačková, Edita Gruberová, Peter Dvorský and more recently, Pavol Breslik. While not quite up to that stellar level, the principal interpreters in this performance were far from disappointing.

Adriana Kohútková (Jenůfa) and Eva Urbanová (Kostelnička) © Jozef Barinka | Slovakian National Theatre Bratislava
Adriana Kohútková (Jenůfa) and Eva Urbanová (Kostelnička)
© Jozef Barinka | Slovakian National Theatre Bratislava
As the utterly unsympathetic, philandering, bibulous roué Števa, tenor Tomáš Juhás was more than satisfactory. His glib abandonment of Jenůfa after Števa hones his knife on her face and subsequent refusal to see his illegitimate baby boy in Act II was convincingly acted and sung. A ringing clear sustained forte top A flat on “O Jenůfa” was especially pleasing.

The role of Števa’s older brother Laca is one of considerable dramatic interest, in that during the course of the opera he develops from an obsessed, plant-poisoning, face-slashing, semi-psycho into a man of Barak-like compassion and forgiveness. It was sung by Slovakian tenor Miroslav Dvorský who also performed the role in Stéphane Braunschweig’s production at La Scala. This was a dramatically credible and finely nuanced performance. The barking frustrations in “Hlúpoty! Běž si posvém” were transformed into some very beautiful lyrical phrasing in Act III - for example “tu bys nevzala” when he gives Jenůfa a bridal posy in Act III when he refuses to disown Jenůfa despite her public disgrace.

In the title role, despite a slightly matronly appearance, Adriana Kohútková did her best to convey the deep complexities of the character with insight and dramatic credibility. The lyrical phrases “O panna Maria” in Act I “neni pro klínání hodna” in Act III were more affecting whilst a clarion top B flat on “Laca” in Act III was impressive. Arguably, the most interesting character in the opera is that of the dominating, intransigent martinet and religious zealot Kostelnička Buryjovka who commits infanticide rather than suffer the shame of having her step-daughter vilified as an unwed mother.

Looking a bit like Peggy Wood turned malevolent Mother Superior in The Sound of Music, veteran soprano Eva Urbanová eschewed the predictable Ėva Marton-esque shrieking/hysteria approach in Act II for a profound sadness which was particularly effective. Her lower register chest notes were consistently round, plummy and Resnik-ish, while the top B flats on “Števa”  “smrt” and “Jenůfa” were powerful and steely accurate. It is probably difficult to make a hash of this diva drammatica role but Madame Urbanová brought out many vocal subtleties not usually so obvious.

Although some of smaller roles were less successful, the chorus was consistently outstanding and sang with commendable energy and commitment. The thumped syncopated rhythmic accompaniment to the con moto “Daleko široko” chorus in Act I suggested a platoon of potential master percussionists.

Curiously, although the singers were rewarded with cheers and thundering applause, there was merely polite acknowledgement for guest conductor Jaroslav Kyzlink who actually produced some wonderful playing from the Slovakian National Theatre orchestra, especially in the cello passage which opens Act II and an overall sonorous string tone. Brass and woodwind were rhythmically crisp or lyrically dulcet as required.

If the locals bemoaned a dearth of tunes to whistle afterwards along the byways of Bratislava, it was hardly the fault of maestro Kyzlink. La bohème and Nabucco will soon be performed to satisfy the siffleurs.