Small Town Outsiders: Jenůfa at the Deutsche Oper Berlin

Janáček – Jenůfa

Jenůfa – Rachel Harnisch
Kostelnička – Evelyn Herlitzius
Laca Klemeň – Robert Watson
Števa Buryja – Ladislav Elgr
Grandmother Buryja – Renate Behle
Mill Foreman – Philipp Jekal
Mayor of the Village – Stephen Bronk
Karolka – Jacquelyn Stucker
Barena – Karis Tucker
Mayor’s Wife – Nadine Secunde
Maid – Fionnuala McCarthy
Jano – Meechot Marrero

Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin / Donald Runnicles.
Stage director – Christof Loy

Deutsche Oper, Berlin, Germany.  Friday, January 17th, 2020.

For this revival of Christof Loy’s 2012 production of Jenůfa, the Deutsche Oper Berlin has assembled a highly promising cast.  Featuring an acclaimed soprano who has proven herself a fine Janáček interpreter in the past, Rachel Harnisch, making her debut in the title role, joined by the great Evelyn Herlitzius as the Kostelnička, in only her second-ever run in the role, following her debut in Amsterdam back in 2018.  The Deutsche Oper’s Music Director, Donald Runnicles, was at the head of the house forces.

What Loy gives us is an intelligent framework for the action – literally so, as he provides a stage within a stage, setting the events of the narrative within a widescreen setting, one that evokes the clean-lined claustrophobia of the Kostelnička’s home, as well as, from time to time, wide open vistas of fields of wheat in Act 1 or the freezing wastes of Act 2.  By transposing the plot to 1960s middle America, Loy adds an additional layer of insight, one I felt worked particularly well.  The 1960s were a time of sexual liberation and the way that Loy, through his singing actors, portrayed the generational difference between the strict, puritan Kostelnička, and the more sexually liberated Jenůfa was striking, with Jenůfa seemingly enjoying playing around with Števa at his entrance.  This made Jenůfa’s pregnancy all the more believable.  Yet, Loy and Harnisch also brought out the complexity of Jenůfa’s attitude to Števa – she may have been sexually liberated in many respects, but this was a woman who was also in charge of her body and had the strength to also say no to him.  Similarly, Loy and Herlitzius also made the Kostelnička a completely three-dimensional character.  Her concern for Jenůfa in Act 1 was palpable, this idea of a woman who had gone through hell in her marriage wanting a better life for her stepdaughter.  Similarly, the rationality of the Kostelnička’s thought processes, and how she came to commit the ultimate crime, was vividly brought to life by Herlitzius at the peak of her interpretative powers.

Photo: © Bettina Stöß

For a staging that was premiered eight years ago and here revived with a new cast, the depth of characterization was remarkable.  Particularly so with every character seemingly part of this provincial universe.  With the female characters impeccably coiffed and looking virtually identical in their Stepford wives’ outfits, perhaps it was inevitable that neither Jenůfa nor the Kostelnička could completely be at home.  Loy and his cast give us a story of outsiders, people who, in their own ways, will never fit into this conventional society.  The narrative clarity also transfers to Laca who, in Robert Watson’s hands, comes across as a more rational and rounded person than usual. Both his remorse and his love were palpable, and we were left with a sense that there may be challenges ahead for both him and Jenůfa but that, with time, things will work out.  I found it an intelligent, visually interesting, and sympathetic piece of theatre.

Photo: © Bettina Stöß

Harnisch gave us a lyrical Jenůfa.  The peaches and cream tone is a pleasure to listen to and she savoured the text with great delicacy.  Throughout the evening she never compromised on the beauty of the tone and phrased her prayer with long, generously phrased lines.  I did have a sense that the voice is perhaps a size too small for a house this big and that perhaps in a smaller theatre, Harnisch might be able to impose herself musically even more.  She is a deeply engaging actress who gave so much of herself physically and the voice is undoubtedly an instrument of natural loveliness.  As Laca, Watson was a discovery.  His is a big, beefy tenor with a bright and forward crystalline tone.  What distinguished his performance was how he used the tone to illustrate Laca’s development, from an icy coldness, draining the colour from the voice in Act 1, to a generous warmth in Act 3.

Photo: © Bettina Stöß

Ladislav Elgr was an extrovert Števa, who coped admirably with the demanding tessitura, even if some dryness entered the tone as the evening progressed.  The veteran Renate Behle sounded suitably mature as Grandmother Buryja, bringing out an implicit sense of humanity through the voice, even if pitching was not always completely à point.  The supporting cast reflected the excellent standards of the house from Philipp Jekal’s handsome, youthful bass as the Foreman, to Meechot Marrero’s delightfully fresh sounding Jano.  A pleasure also to see another veteran, Nadine Secunde, as a deliciously spiteful Mayor’s Wife.  The voice may not be as responsive as it used to be, but her stage presence is undimmed.  The house chorus sang with fresh tone, acted with abandon in their dances, and just about managed to keep coordination with the pit in the Act 1 festivities.

Photo: © Bettina Stöß

Then there was Herlitzius.  There is something remarkable about the way that she creates her character.  One can watch it with analytical detail but then get completely sucked in by how utterly compelling she is.  In Act 2, she gave us a masterclass in combining voice and physicality.  As she outlined how proud she was initially of Jenůfa, she found some tenderness in the tone.  Then, as she begged Števa to stay with Jenůfa, she pulled back on the tone, making it almost brittle, as if unwilling yet compelled to do something to keep moral standing.  Then, as she resolved to commit murder, she opened the voice up thrillingly, the high C-flats ringing out, pinning spectators to their seats with overwhelming impact.  Similarly, at the end of Act 2, as she mentioned death peering in, the fear in the tone was palpable.  Herlitzius’s Kostelnička was always so completely compelling to watch and to hear.  This is a major assumption of this iconic role.

I must admit, though, to some disappointment with Runnicles’s conducting.  The quality of the playing the he achieved from his orchestra was outstanding.  The wealth of colour that they managed to produce was staggering, from silky strings, to gurgling clarinets to solid, golden toned brass.  And yet, it felt that Runnicles was over romanticizing the score, blunting its edges.  This was partly due to the deep pile string tone, partly also to some very languid tempi that frequently allowed tension to sag, as in the Act 1 Jenůfa/Števa duet.  The closing pages sounded radiant, with feather-light strings over the gently throbbing harps, yet in the remainder of the evening, I missed that sense of pulsating rhythms overlaid by long lyrical lines.  It was an interesting approach, certainly, but not one that left me entirely convinced and I wish he had privileged drama over beauty of tone.  He was extremely well received by the audience at the curtain calls, so I may well be in a minority in this respect.

Photo: © Bettina Stöß

Ultimately, this is a fine Jenůfa.  We were given a staging of empathetic intelligence, visually striking to look at, which provided a dramatic framework that allowed the singing-actors within it to create believable and sympathetic characters.  It was superbly played by the house orchestra, even if I do maintain some reservations about the conducting.  What distinguished this performance, however, was a central trio of striking immediacy, capped by a performance of the Kostelnička that was unbearably compelling.  On the whole, a rewarding evening in the theatre.

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