Beauty, pain and reflection: Jenůfa at San Francisco Opera

Janáček – Jenůfa

Jenůfa – Malin Byström
Kostelnička – Karita Mattila
Laca Klemeň – William Burden
Števa Buryja – Scott Quinn
Grandmother Buryja – Jill Grove
Mill Foreman – Matthew Stump
Mayor of the Village – Anthony Reed
Karolka – Julie Adams
Barena – Toni Marie Palmertree
Mayor’s Wife – Zanda Švēde
Maid – Laura Krumm
Jano – Sarah Tucker

San Francisco Opera Chorus, San Francisco Opera Orchestra / Jiři Bĕlohlávek.
Stage director – Olivier Tambosi.

San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, California, USA.  Tuesday, June 14th, 2016.

Tonight marked my first visit to the War Memorial Opera House, home to San Francisco Opera, and indeed was also my first visit to the city by the bay.  It really is one of the world’s great cities and I can completely understand why Tony Bennett left his heart here.  It’s a beautiful place with vibrant cultural and culinary scenes and is without a doubt worth a visit.  The theatre itself is absolutely stunning.  With seating for over 3100 it feels surprisingly intimate and the acoustics seem warm.  This year, San Francisco Opera is offering a world-class summer season with the North American premiere of Bieito’s Carmen, tonight’s Jenůfa with stage debuts by two leading Nordic singers, and a luxuriously-cast Don Carlo.

Ensemble © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Ensemble © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The staging for Jenůfa was imported from the Staatsoper Hamburg and was clearly based on a considered reading of the libretto.  The set for the first act revealed two wooden walls in a triangular shape opening out onto a cornfield.  For most of the second act they were brought together to indicate how Jenůfa was trapped in the Kostelnička’s home while in the third they were present at the sides of the stage.  Tombosi also used stones to signify Jenůfa’s pregnancy, baby and subsequent loss, reflecting frequent mentions in the libretto such as at the start of Jenůfa’s prayer she mentions feeling as if having a large stone in her head.  In the first act, a rock in the ground was visible pushing out of the floor of the stage, perceptible but not completely present.  In the second, it was fully visible and a looming presence in the claustrophobic room.  In the final act, it reappeared, this time shattered into pieces and the villagers used the pieces to threaten to stone Jenůfa due to their perception of her guilt.  As a symbolic approach it certainly has its merits but it also felt somewhat heavy-handed.  Likewise, as Jenůfa sings her Act 2 prayer, the back of the room opens up to reveal falling snow.  It certainly created a beautiful stage picture and gave an insight into Jenůfa’s state of mind even if it did perhaps seem somewhat contrived.

Malin Byström & Karita Mattila © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Malin Byström & Karita Mattila © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

This was a village where characters didn’t quite relate to each other.  They barely looked at one another, frequently addressing the front rather than looking at the person they were singing to.  Similarly, when Števa appears in the first act and grabs Jenůfa, he does so from behind making it clear that his feelings for her are more physical than romantic.  Where such an approach does work is in the very final scene where Jenůfa and Laca are left alone and finally they start to look at and engage with each other, the personenregie and the individual performances ideally expressing the humanity so deeply embedded in Janáček’s music.

Malin Byström © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Malin Byström © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Musically, there was some evidence of first night jitters – some of the rapid string figures and attack were not quite unanimous and the choruses in Act 1 felt a little tentative but these are the kind of things that will settle down during the run.  The Czech title of Jenůfa is Její pastorkyňa (Her Stepdaughter) and reflects the equal importance of the two leading ladies.  Tonight was Malin Byström’s debut in the title role.  She is a singer I have long admired for her sheer beauty of sound but have also had significant concerns over droopy intonation and significant issues with support.  Tonight, other than a very few passing moments of ends of phrases not being sustained in the prayer, Byström really did fulfil her promise.  This was by far the best thing I have heard her do.   She really felt in control of the language and the style, ideally finding the balance between lyricism and rhythmic accuracy.  The voice was well-supported on the whole and she gave us some good pianissimi at the top.  The final scene was sung with genuine radiance and warmth with long phrases fully bringing out precisely that humanity contained in the music.  She also blended remarkably well with Karita Mattila’s Kostelnička, the voices similar in colour so that they sounded like they could be step-mother and daughter.  Indeed, I thought it an inspired piece of casting.

Karita Mattila © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Karita Mattila © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Tonight was Mattila’s stage debut in the role having performed it in concert a few months ago in Prague and London, England.  This evening, Mattila gave us a total and unequivocal masterclass in character development and the total union between text, music and physicality.  Her Kostelnička was a reasonable woman, rather than an evil harridan, who had clearly been wronged in the past and who only wanted the best for her step-daughter, achieved through a voice that still has that lunar beauty which is her trademark.  Mattila convincingly portrayed the murder of the child as the desperate act of someone who felt she had no other choice.  She was a magnetic presence on stage, even when not singing, and the way she transformed from the upright and uptight figure to a broken woman who could no longer stand up straight was absolutely devastating.  Her singing was beautiful, pained and reflective all at once.  This was the work of a truly great singing actress.

Malin Byström & Karita Mattila © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Malin Byström & Karita Mattila © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Mattila also used the text in a remarkable way and despite most of the cast being Anglophone, the two leading ladies being the notable exceptions, the text came across very clearly.  Certainly, the quality of the remaining roles justified San Francisco’s reputation as one of the world’s leading theatres.  William Burden sang Laca in a wonderfully fresh and bright tenor with an easy line.  With his handsome tone, one genuinely felt sympathy for him.  Scott Quinn perhaps didn’t quite swagger as much as one might expect as Števa but he also offered a good line and an ability to sustain the higher reaches of the part.  Jill Grove offered a notable cameo as Grandmother Buryja.  The registers seem to have parted company in her mezzo but she has stage presence to spare.  Sarah Tucker’s bright and eager soprano was an asset to the cast as Jano and Matthew Stump’s handsome bass had good presence as the foreman.  The chorus sang with good blend and surely will increase in confidence in the first act as the run continues.

Malin Byström, Scott Quinn, Jill Grove and the San Francisco Opera Chorus © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Malin Byström, Scott Quinn, Jill Grove and the San Francisco Opera Chorus © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Jiři Bĕlohlávek really is unrivalled in this repertoire and tonight led a reading that genuinely amplified the events on stage and succeeded in making this the overwhelming experience it was.  The opening, with that insistent yet almost imperceptible xylophone motif really set the atmosphere and Bĕlohlávek brought out the tension in the score every time the motif reappeared.  He also brought out the folk music aspects of the score and the marriage of lyricism and rhythmic impetus that abounds in the piece.  The orchestra played well for him – the plangent oboe and the characterful clarinet deserve special mention.  The brass also, full of personality, really stood out.  There were a few passing moments where the strings felt somewhat tentative but otherwise the quality of the playing really was excellent.

Malin Byström & William Burden © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Malin Byström & William Burden © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

This was a deeply moving evening in the theatre that was both devastating and yet restored one’s faith in humanity at the same time.  It was notable for two assumptions of the leading roles, one by a singer fully realizing her promise and another by a singing-actress who truly hit greatness tonight.  That it was conducted so idiomatically and with such profound compassion really emphasized the immense impact of Janáček’s work.  This is without doubt a show that needs to be seen.





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