What a difference a director makes! Although I don’t subscribe to everything Christof Loy does here – the atmosphere is somehow too urbane, costumes are anachronistic and nonsensical (the grandmother in high heels?), everything is too white, clean and bright – these singers are really acting and what they do on stage strikes home in a convincing manner. The rather cheap-looking white set the sliding rear wall of which sometimes reveal an Andrew Wyatt-like landscape cannot help but focusing the audience’s attention in every gesture, every expression – a risky enterprise with opera singers that proved to pay off beautifully, even with the members of the cast less gifted in the acting department.
Of course, the blank sets pose an extra demand of atmosphere in the music-making. It is curious that Donald Runnicles says, in the program, that the great challenge with this score is not too round off the hard angles – and that was precisely my problem with act I. With Janacek, one expects a sharply-defined, rather bright, precise sound from the orchestra, which sounded puzzlingly Wagnerian instead in its rich, large, warm sonorities. After the intermission, the conductor could finally sell his concept – the warm, dense orchestral sound would envelope singers’ voices in an organic and expressive way, the overwhelming beauty of the string section transport the audience right to the core of the drama. By the end of the opera, if you haven’t shed a tear or two, you probably don’t have a heart.
Listening to Michaela Kaune is a frustrating experience to me – the natural tone quality is pleasant, the volume is quite generous for a lyric soprano, the musicianship and sensitivity are foolproof and she is an adept actress, but the technique is faulty and the high register is increasingly unfocused and smoky. This evening, though, what she offered the audience was so so heartfelt and so sincere that lack of focus ultimately had no importance. In her singing and in her acting she was Jenufa, and I will always remember her for this performance. I would have never expected to see Jennifer Larmore in the role of Kostelnicka; some of the most famous exponents of this role are Wagnerian singers, while Larmore has made her name in Rossini and Handel. The first impression is that the voice indeed lacks power in this part, but she tackles it with utmost conviction and does not cheat: her singing was full-toned, vibrant, rich, strongly supported and never less than committed. She works hard for intensity (she is no force of nature à la Anja Silja) and follows the stage direction thoroughly. If one wants indeed something more formidable, one cannot do but praise this American mezzo for being true to her personality and voice and still offering an interesting performance. If Joseph Kaiser’s tenor sounded more solid this evening than in Munich last year, he is still vocally out of his element here. Fortunately, he acts his role most efficiently and with more depth than most. On the other hand, Will Hartmann displayed a firm, bright, forceful tenor in the role of Laca. For a change, it was good to hear someone in this role that does not sound like Mime.
The part of the grandmother is low-lying for Hanna Schwarz’s voice and, with her flashing projection and charisma, one keepy wondering how she would have fared as Kostelnicka (I don’t know if she has ever sung the role). Martina Welschenbach was an exemplary Karolka (it is Lucia Popp’s role in Charles Mackerras’ iconic recording) and Simon Pauly, as always, made an impression in his short interventions as the Mill Foreman. Don’t ask me about Czech pronunciation – if they sang it in Slovakian, I wouldn’t know the difference…