Olivier Tambosi’s controversial production of Janáček's Jenůfa first appeared at the Met in 2003. Working, I presume, from a line in the libretto in which Jenůfa compares her unlucky love life to a “stone weighing down my heart”, Tambosi and designer Frank Philipp Schlossmann have turned the metaphor literal. There are hints of stone popping up through the floor in Act I, the stone becomes a boulder that takes up almost all of the stage in Act II, and by Act III it has been shattered into many rocks. It may have weakened, but the rocks can be used to throw at Jenůfa when the townspeople believe her guilty of drowning her baby. The first impression of the stone in Act II may be off-putting and too hefty a symbol, but the internal logic is undeniable, and Tambosi is excellent at delineating character. The production gets better with repeated viewings.
Jenůfa may be the eponymous heroine, but she is not the opera’s central force. It is the complex Kostelnička who sets Jenůfa’s misery in action by refusing to let her marry Števa; it is she who lies to everyone about Jenůfa’s whereabouts for the months prior to and after the baby’s birth; she tells Jenůfa that the baby died while she, Jenůfa, was ill and asleep for a couple of days, and it is she who drowns the baby. She will do anything to save face and she does not really love. The role is a meal for any great singing actress, and Karita Mattila, who has recently added the Kostelnička to her repertoire, overwhelmed. Previously a superb, girlish, sad Jenůfa at the Met (and elsewhere), now she adapts the figure of a walking iceberg capable of sinking the entire Moravian village she seems to rule. In superb, gigantic voice, in this vocally difficult role – it moves from volcanic high B naturals to chest voice in a flash – Ms Mattila’s Kostelnička’s terrified. When she breaks down in hysteria and confesses we realize that she, too, was Mr Tambosi’s rock, now in pieces.
A gentle, loving character, Jenůfa begins the opera on the verge of happiness; although pregnant, she is about to marry her carefree, partying lover Števa. That gets sidetracked and she is slashed in a fit of spiteful rage by his brother Laca, who is in love with her. And it is downhill from there. Ukranian soprano Oksana Dyka possesses a voice with an exciting edge to her solid top notes, but she did not engage the sympathies. She alone acted by rote, and frankly, seemed out of place with the rest of the cast. Where was the youth, the warmth, the sadness, so inherent to the character?
The tenors made major impressions – in fact there was one extra. Joseph Kaiser as the callow Števa acted up a storm and used his focused lyric voice to grand effect. And Daniel Brenna’s huge sound suited the angry Laca Klemeň well, but he sounded stressed during the first two acts and cancelled the third; the fine tenor Garrett Sorenson completed the opera singing from the side of the stage while Mr Brenna continued acting. Hanna Schwarz was a figure to be reckoned with as Grandmother Burja and Ying Fang made a lovely Jano. Indeed, all of the singers expressed Janáček’s “speech melodies” with expertise.
David Robertson led an anxiety filled performance, from the opening nervous xylophone beats through the spasmodic rhythms and handsome melodies, until the glorious, forgiving music that ends the opera. Even with a hole – Jenůfa – at the center, the evening left the audience trembling and cheering.
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