Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) was music and opera’s greatest late bloomer. Jenůfa, his first masterpiece for the stage, was premiered when he was 50. Virtually all of the music for which he is remembered was written in the last third of his life. Last night the SFO performed Jenůfa in a new production directed by David Alden. This run is the first time Janáček’s work has been staged by the company.
Let’s get the worst out of the way first. Staging the opera in 1950s communist Czechoslovakia is a witless mistake. The libretto, by the composer, is based on a play by Gabriela Preissová. It’s about a pregnant woman who can’t get her unborn child’s father to marry her. This dilemma doesn’t work where Alden set it. It needs to be in the 19th century where it belongs. Charles Edwards’ sets are spare and lifeless. The opera would have better been placed on a bare stage with time appropriate costumes.
The opera doesn’t need great voices, though they would help. The closest to such a voice was that of Patricia Racette as the morally ambiguous adoptive mother of the title character – Kostelnička Buryjovka. Racette would have been great in the title role 20 years ago. As she currently is, she displayed the strongest singing of any of the main roles. Her part is just as important as Jenůfa’s.
Soprano Laura Wilde gave her all to the part of the “fallen” woman, but it wasn’t enough. She just doesn’t have the vocal power and focus the part requires. She was often shrill and sometimes sharp. Despite her vocal shortcomings she was convincing as the village virgin once removed. Jenůfa’s face is cut by Laca, who suffers from unrequited love for her, in the first act. From where I sat I could see no evidence of it in Acts 2 and 3. Her scarred face his important to the story.
The two half brothers Laca and Števa are two unsavory guys. The former has knifed Jenůfa, as just mentioned, while the latter is a drunken lout devoid of any redeeming features. Nevertheless, Jenůfa loves him even after his worst characteristics have been revealed and even after her illegitimate child has been born in secrecy. The best he can do for her is offer some money. One must conclude that she’s not too bright. Worse she ends up marrying Laca.
Laca was played by tenor Alexander Lewis. He has even less voice for his part than did Wilde. His worthless, though rich, sibling was sung by another tenor – Richard Trey Smagur. He had more voice and would have sounded better than Lewis in the opera’s concluding moments. Incidentally, he’s very tall. It’s hard to tell when he was surrounded by singers at least a foot shorter, but he seemed to me to be as tall as LeBron James.
The remaining parts were well filled. Veteran Susanne Mentzer was fine as the somewhat befuddled grandmother. Surprisingly the biggest voices seemed to belong to singers who played small parts – ie, Jana McIntyre as a shepherd boy and especially that of Will Liverman. His baritone is bright and resonant. The chorus, which has an important role, was very well coached and performed faultlessly.
The orchestra, which is the opera’s most important component, was brilliantly conducted by Johannes Debus. This leads to the opera’s strengths and weaknesses. Janáček’s score brilliantly carries the emotional and dramatic interest of Janáček’s (also the librettist) story. The composer’s orchestral invention is marvelous and makes the opera a compelling experience. There’s only one let down.
In the second act Jenůfa is told that her baby has died. He was surreptitiously murdered by Kostelnička after she had drugged the infant’s mother. Both Jenůfa’s and Janáček’s reaction to the ghastly event is underwhelming. Puccini, whom Janáček admired, would have made this discovery into a theatrical bombshell.
The orchestra carries much of the interest in this opera. Conductor Johannes Debus got a splendid performance from the fine Santa Few players.
Jenůfa is very different from the standard fare offered to both the devoted and casual opera goer. Accordingly, I can see how some might be put of by the Czech composer’s unique style. His different approach to the lyric theater doubtless explains the empty seats that dotted the hall. I think visitors to Santa Fe who usually go to the opera, but who skipped this one missed a compelling experience.
A word about language. The program notes contained this: “Janáček’s operas are simply unimaginable without the Moravian intonation of the Czech in which they are sung. This is why it is so essential to hear them in their original language.” Baloney! Jenůfa was first given by The Met in German. Later it was sung in English. More recently it has been done in Czech. None of the singers in this performance is a native Czech speaker. Nobody in the audience likely was a Czech speaker. So why do it in Czech? You might as well do it as a vocalise. When I play recordings of Czech operas sung in the original language by performers who are not native Czech speakers to native Czech speakers they tell me that they can’t understand a single word. Regardless, Jenůfa is a great opera even if it’s a bit off the usual operatic path.
Conductor: Johannes Debus*
Director: David Alden
Scenic Design: Charles Edwards*
Costume Design: Jon Morrell
Lighting Design: Duane Schuler
Choreography: Maxine Braham*
Chorus Master: Susanne Sheston
Jenůfa: Laura Wilde*+
Kostelnička Buryjovka: Patricia Racette
Grandmother Buryjovka: Susanne Mentzer
Laca Klemeň: Alexander Lewis*
Števa Buryja: Richard Trey Smagur*+
Foreman: Will Liverman+
The Santa Fe Opera Orchestra and Chorus
*Santa Fe Opera debut, +Former Santa Fe Opera Apprentice