Devastating Realism: Jenůfa at De Nationale Opera, Amsterdam

Janáček – Jenůfa

Jenůfa – Annette Dasch
Kostelnička – Evelyn Herlitzius
Laca Klemeň – Pavel Černoch
Števa Buryja – Norman Reinhardt
Grandmother Buryja – Hanna Schwarz
Mill Foreman – Henry Waddington
Mayor of the Village – Jeremy White
Karolka – Karin Strobos
Barena – Gloria Giurgola
Mayor’s Wife – Francis van Broekhuizen
Maid – Polly Leech
Jano – Sophia Burgos

Koor van De Nationale Opera, Nederlands Philharmonisch Orkest / Tomáš Netopil.
Stage director – Katie Mitchell.

De Nationale Opera, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.  Saturday, October 6th, 2018.

A role debut is always a special moment and in tonight’s Jenůfa we had not one, but two.  Evelyn Herlitzius was making her debut as the Kostelnička, while Annette Dasch made hers in the title role.  This new production was confided to Katie Mitchell.  I must admit to some advance trepidation, following Mitchell’s highly problematic Ariadne at Aix-en-Provence, and her lavatorial Lucia at the London Royal Opera, where Edgardo had to sing his final scene alongside a running bath in a different key.  In many respects that trepidation was unfounded as, thanks to the outstanding singing-actors at her disposal, Mitchell gives us what is, on the whole, a very competent staging.

Photo: © Ruth Walz

Mitchell sets the work in a modern-day Moravia, with desktop computers and camera phones to film the action.  The widescreen stage offered a hyper-realistic setting.  It didn’t start too auspiciously.  Act 1 was full of the usual Mitchell clichés of a split stage and constant extraneous action, suggesting an unwillingness to trust her singers to drive the action.  A washroom situated in the centre of the stage created a very useful way of illustrating (quite graphically) Jenůfa’s morning sickness, as well as giving spectators on the right of the auditorium more than they might have bargained for when Dasch’s Jenůfa pulled down her panties and lifted her skirt to urinate.  It was interesting how the Kostelnička hid herself in the washroom to gather herself before going out to face the crowds.  The downside was that sightlines will inevitably be affected for those not able to see the action in the other rooms, particularly those at the extremities of this semicircle-shaped auditorium.

Photo: © Ruth Walz

However, in Act 2 something happened.  The setting, in an isolated trailer, with no possibility of introducing extras, meant that Mitchell was forced to focus on her singers who, in turn, gave us performances of visceral, piercing power – Dasch and Herlitzius in particular.  Dasch brought out a desperation and sense of loss that was harrowing.  Hertlizius’ Kostelnička was absolutely magnetic in her seemingly rational acceptance of her own irrationality.  That closed, claustrophobic atmosphere where it could be possible to engender a justification for the worst possible crime, was harrowingly brought to life.  In many respects, Mitchell manages to get to the heart of the piece; in others, she misses it by either being unwilling or unable to resolve the questions she poses herself.

Photo: © Ruth Walz

These primarily revolve around the journeys of the central characters.  The journey of the Kostelnička from paranoid matriarch, to child killer, to penance, was very much brought to life.  I found the portrayal of Laca somewhat more dramatically problematic.  He was seen initially attempting to rape Jenůfa and of course Act 1 culminates in him disfiguring her.  Yet the journey from brutal attempted rapist/actual face slasher to loving husband didn’t quite seem fully joined up.  It meant that the final scene, rather than the tenderness explored in the music, saw Jenůfa and Laca getting down and physical, stripping to their underwear and copulating on the dining table in a way that I found problematic after Mitchell placed Laca’s brutality front and centre.  It meant that there was an ambivalence to the final scene that felt far from a sense of closure and resolution.

Photo: © Ruth Walz

Pavel Černoch’s Laca completely threw himself into Mitchell’s concept and he sang the role superbly.  He lives and breathes this music, bringing an implicit understanding of the idiom that cannot be taught.  He shaded the tone beautifully in his musings on Jenůfa in Act 1 and the voice rose with an easy clarion power where required.  It goes without saying that his native diction gave much pleasure.  As his half-brother, Norman Reinhardt brought a lighter tone.  His bright tenor was well placed, although the top tended to lose body at full volume.  The veteran Hanna Schwarz was an extremely glamorous Grandmother Buryja, her dramatic portrayal suggesting a strength that was slightly at odds with the portrayal of the libretto.  Her large and warm mezzo can still fill a theatre, although pitch had a tendency to sag higher up.

Photo: © Ruth Walz

Dasch gave us a heartfelt Jenůfa.  Her slightly narrow soprano has a pearly beauty.  There was also a momentary tendency for pitch to sag when under pressure, for instance when riding the ensemble in Act 1.  Dasch very much came into her own in Act 2, giving a performance that was almost quite unhinged in its uninhibitedness.  The prayer was beguilingly sung and was preceded by Dasch willing to compromise the beauty of the tone to demonstrate Jenůfa’s desperation, practically spitting out the text with a remarkable depth of feeling.  Dasch brought out the full range of Jenůfa’s journey, from serious office worker, to distraught mother, and finally to loving forgiveness towards her stepmother.

Photo: © Ruth Walz

Herlitzius was an electrifying Kostelnička.  Astonishing to think that this was a role debut as Herlitizus gave us such a fully-rounded character – the haughty matriarch progressing to a pill-popping shell of a woman who’d lost everything.  The way that Herlitzius used voice and physicality to illustrate how the Kostelnička seemed to make the irrational seem completely rational, even as far as infanticide, was absolutely magnetic.  The visible progression in the Kostelnička’s resolve, as she accepted she had no choice other than to commit murder, was incredibly chilling and, at the same time, frighteningly logical.  The role sits well for her generous soprano, rising from a full and rich bottom to that open and quite massive top, the registers absolutely even throughout.  Indeed, the desperate cries of ‘Vidíte ji, Kostelničku’ (look at her, the Kostelnička) filled the theatre with quite horrifying pain.  If anything, the healthiness of Hertlizius’ soprano made her Kostelnička seem a lot younger than usual.  Above all, however, what will stay with me is the closing phrase of Act 2 – ‘jako by sem smrt načuhovala’ (it felt like death peering in) – the voice taking on enormous amplitude with so much expression imbued into the text.  It was harrowing, gripping and left me utterly shaken.  For a moment, she made me forget I was in a theatre – such was the searing immediacy of her portrayal.

Photo: © Ruth Walz

The remaining roles were reliably taken and Wu Ching-Lien’s chorus offered lusty and uninhibited singing.  Tomáš Netopil led a wonderfully idiomatic reading and was rewarded by some highly classy playing from the Nederlands Philharmonisch Orkest.  There was a transparency to the orchestral textures that brought out the kaleidoscopic range of instrumental colours to the fore, such as threatening pizzicati or the adrenaline rush in the strings as Laca handled the knife.  Tempi were nicely fluid and dramatically vital and Netopil also highlighted those typically Janáčekian angular rhythms, the band executing them with easy accuracy.

Photo: © Ruth Walz

This is undoubtedly a Jenůfa worth seeing – the central trio of Dasch, Herlitzius and Černoch gave us performances that were so vivid and compelling, that I felt completely gripped and moved.  The evening benefits from superb and idiomatic conducting, as well as excellent orchestral playing.  In a way, it’s regrettable that the staging is so inconsistent.  That isn’t to say it lacks in insightfulness – on the contrary, so much in Mitchell’s concept works so well, the claustrophobia of Act 2 is so completely brought to life by the protagonists.  Where it feels less successful is in its apparent unwillingness or inability to successfully articulate how Laca’s brutality could find its way into Jenůfa’s affections.  Above all this is a harrowing and moving Jenůfa thanks to an outstanding central trio and, in that respect, it is most definitely a Jenůfa worth seeing.

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