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Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Opera Review: Country Discomfort

The Met revives Leoš Janáček's Jenůfa. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Karita Mattila (standing) holds Oksana Dyka in a key scene from Act II of Jenůfa.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2016 The Metropolitan Opera.
This latest Met revival of Jenůfa, the third opera by Czech composer Leoš Janáček is one of the most important productions of the current season. It allows a new generation of opera-goers to discover one of the most powerful dramas of the 20th century, thanks to the presence of a near-ideal cast. On Monday night, soprano Oksana Dyka was incandescent in the title role, a peasant girl whose suffering makes her one of the great operatic heroines. She's pregnant by a man that does not love her. She is attacked and mutilated by his love-struck brother. And then the baby is drowned.



Jenůfa was  Janáček's third opera and his first real success for the stage. Based on a Czech play (itself a conflation of two actual events), it is an example of feminist literature from over a century ago, showing courage and compassion in equal quantities and elevating this simple, tragedy-struck girl as a hero who rises above her difficult family. The opera is a slightly trimmed setting of the original play, (titled Její pastorkyňa, "Her Stepdaughter" in Czech). It is a blunt look at country life in Moravia (now the eastern part of the Czech Republic) and the misfortunes of the title character, the two would-be suitors and her domineering stepmother, known to all in the little village as the Kostelnička, her title as church sexton.

When this production premiered in 2003, Finnish soprano Karita Mattila played the title role to rave reviews. Here, Ms. Dyka took on the role, creating the arc from the innocent lass to the mature woman, matured in the crucible of tragedy. For this revival she sings the Kostelnička, bringing a regal presence and burning intensity to the part. In the great scene lasting three quarters of an hour in the second act, this pious but controlling woman convinces herself to murder Jenůfa's baby in one of the great dramatic turns of this season. Ms. Mattila brought menace, terror and a subtle hysteria to the part, convincing herself of the rightness of her actions even as she walked the razor edge of madness.

Ms. Dyka's performance peaked in the second act. Following the Kostelnička's exit. she emerged from the depths of the vast yet claustrophobic set to sing the prayer to the Virgin Mary that may be this opera's best known musical moment. In the searing final scene of this intense act, she agreed (reluctantly) to marry Laca. She maintained her intensity into the third act, facing down the whole village accusing her of infanticide, and finally realizing that Laca, despite his actions, loves her and is worthy of her forgiveness.

As Laca, tenor Daniel Brenna brought a burly energy to the first act, culminating in the horrible assault and the climactic high notes that go with it. However, it was announced in the third act that Mr. Brenna was unable to continue singing, given the high and exposed writing for the voice in the third act. This was done by emergency tenor Garrett Sorensen, standing stage right with a music stand in his street clothes--a brown polo shirt and a pair of khakis. Mr. Sorensen also sang with bright tone, the only hitch being certain issues of synchronicity as Mr Brenna  mimed his part.

The three leads were surrounded by an excellent supporting cast. Venerable mezzo-soprano Hanna Schwarz brought presence to the role of the elderly Grandmother Buryjovka, the family's doddering matriarch. As Steva, tenor Joseph Kaiser made a lack of depth into a sort of art form, singing with a bold and enthusiastic presence. His decision in the second act to abandon Jenůfa and her baby was on a par with that other verismo cad, B.F. Pinkerton. In the comprimario parts, soprano Ying Fang, baritone Bradley Garvin and bass Richard Bernstein all made good impressions.

It was up to the Met chorus and orchestra and the skill of conductor David Robertson to make this unconventional opera work. Janacek's predilection for folk rhythms, uniquely Moravian turns of musical phrase and doubled instruments are not easy for any conductor. Mr. Robertson showed mastery and a command of Janacek's turn of phrase. The final scene, where Laca and Jenůfa reconcile and prepare to marry, lifted the veil from the score and bathed the listener in a golden flood of sound. 

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.