Janacek’s Jenufa is no longer a hidden gem in the repertoire, but it is neither a household name. Curiously, for its increase dramatic tension, realistic situations and intense musical characterization make it a quasi-cinematographic opera in its screenplay-like libretto and sensitive, complex yet straight-to-the-point depiction of a family tragedy. And there are also three challenging big roles for soprano, mezzo and tenor – and plenty of opportunity for a good orchestra. Maybe the Czech language accounts for its relative rarity. In any case, the Bayerische Staatsoper risked to stage it with an international cast in a new production last year. Barbara Frey’s updating of the action at some point in the 50’s or 60’s does not make violence to the plot*, but – even if stage direction itself is very sensitive and effective – the concept is rather blank. One could say that a naturalistic approach is the keynote, but stylized costumes for choristers and a house for Jenufa and Konstelnicka without walls in act III seem to dismiss that idea.
The original production featured Eva-Maria Westbroek and Deborah Polaski and I can only imagine subtler and more smoothly sung performances than those offered by this evening’s Angela Denoke and Gabriele Schnaut. With her round, golden and youthful sound, Denoke could be a good Jenufa, but the frequentation of heavy repertoire is taking its toll very fast. Legato is largely gone, the high register is now tense and constricted and exposed dramatic notes are unstable and poorly supported, not to mention that mezza voce is no longer available. She is still a very good actress, particularly touching in the second act, but I wonder if it is not time to take a break and seriously rethink what she has been doing. When it comes to Gabriele Schnaut, it’s been a while since her once impressive resources have declined. That said, although her voice is now disturbingly metallic and quite wobbly, she still can produce the right effect when she finds room to operate. Key moments were served all right deafening acuti, telluric chest notes and even quite decent pianissimi. But do not mistake me – her manners are rather stiff and her phrasing too unflowing for comfort. One just needs to listen to Eva Randová in Decca’s studio recording to hear everything that is missing. Stefan Margita has a pleasant, rather large voice, but his open-toned, poorly supported approach to high notes is quite disturbing. During the scene in act III where the corpse of Jenufa’s baby is found, he produced some very strange sounds, while his Jenufa could barely hit her notes. In any case, quite confusingly for this opera, he was a quite more dominant figure than the Steva of Joseph Kaiser, who seemed amazingly overparted. His tenor sounded overgrainy and barely pierced through. Among the minor roles, Diane Pilcher offered a firm-toned Grandmother Buryja and Christoph Stephinger was a forceful village mayor.
Although the Bavarian State Orchestra produced some exquisite sounds throughout, I have the impression that conductor Tomas Hanus tried to make it easy for his singers by keeping his musicians in leash. The kind of excitement, richness of sound and forward-movement found in Charles Mackerras’s recording with the Vienna Philharmonic was hardly what one found here this evening.
* I am not sure about the modern wind turbines. I am no specialist, but they seem anachronistic.