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Posts Tagged ‘Janacek’s Jenufa’

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…

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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.

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