Village Life: Jenůfa at the Janáček Festival, Brno

Janáček – Jenůfa

Jenůfa – Pavla Vykopalová
Kostelnička – Karita Mattila
Laca Klemeň – Peter Berger
Števa Buryja – Richard Samek
Grandmother Buryja – Jitka Zerhauová
Mill Foreman – Jiří Sulženko
Mayor of the Village – Ladislav Mlejnek
Karolka – Tereza Kyzlinková
Barena – Jana Hrochová
Mayor’s Wife – Jarmila Balažová
Maid – Jitka Klečanská
Jano – Martina Mádlová

Sbor Janáčkovy opery NdB, Orchestr Janáčkovy opery NdB / Marko Ivanović.
Stage director – Martin Glaser.

Janáčkovo divadlo, NdB, Brno, Czechia.  Saturday, October 3rd, 2020.

Another first for me tonight and my first visit to the city of Brno for its biannual Janáček festival, held in the theatre that bears his name, in the city where he lived for much of his life.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see any of the city, home to the renowned Masaryk University, but first impressions were definitely positive.  The theatre itself is a modern building, the auditorium has a steep rake which guarantees superb sightlines from every seat, and the seats themselves are extremely comfortable. 

Photo: © NdB 2015

This performance of Jenůfa was a revival of Martin Glaser’s 2015 staging.  Given with an almost exclusively local cast, there was much excitement over the presence of the great Karita Mattila as the Kostelnička, with the audience heartily applauding her name during the extensive opening speeches.  Glaser gives us a serviceable staging.  He posits a question – is Jenůfa’s story really that unique? Or is it one that has been repeated time and time again in rural Moravia?  Two elements reinforce this – the presence of doubles of Jenůfa and Laca at the back of the stage in Act 1.  Or more strikingly, the Kostelnička’s home in Act 2 is a series of identical, small rooms, each with a crucifix on the wall, while a crib is visible in the room behind.  This idea of a society based on a warped view of morality, one where being different is an impossibility, is one I found most compelling.  In the final scene, the Kostelnička and Mayor descend on a hydraulic platform below the stage, leaving Jenůfa and Laca alone on a dark empty stage.  Perhaps the message is that happiness is impossible in the village and the only way to be truly happy is to escape it.

Photo: © NdB 2015

The staging abounds in local colour, with colourful costumes for the chorus.  And yet, while I felt there was much positive in Glaser’s view of the work, the personenregie was rudimentary.  The chorus was marched on and off, standing in formation – though the ladies engaged in some impressive moves in Act 3.  Far too often, characters would just semaphore to the front in stock operatic gestures.  Even an actor as noted as Mattila came across as rather hammy in the overwrought gesticulations at times in Act 2, and there was a persistent sense that she had been under-directed – perhaps inevitable in an extremely short revival of two performances such as this.   

Photo: © NdB 2015

The biggest pleasure in this evening’s performance was getting to hear such incredibly idiomatic performances across the board.  Particularly from the chorus, who sang with such refreshing blend of tone – the tenors in particular shining out of the texture.  These are people who’ve lived with this music forever, and it shows in the sheer accuracy and freedom with which they executed those complex Janáčekian rhythms.  There was something so utterly natural about their singing, something that felt so absolutely right, that it left one regretting that Janáček hadn’t given them more to do.  The house orchestra also played with confidence under their chief, Marko Ivanović.  The soundworld was revelatory – piquant winds, violins that seemed to pierce through the texture with the brightness of the Moravian sky on a summer’s day, and brass that threatened and supported consolation accordingly.  Ivanović’s conducting, though, I must admit to leaving me with a more equivocal impression.  The quality of the playing he achieved from his orchestra was undeniable, but I found his reading somewhat over-romanticized, shaving off that unique blend of angularity that combines with soaring lyricism in this work – though not to the extreme of Runnicles in Berlin, for instance.  I longed for that incisive sense of rhythmic attack that Netopil found in Amsterdam.  There were some revelatory moments, though.  I don’t think I’ve been so aware of the surging echoes of the knife in the Act 2 prelude, yet at the same token, the end of Act 2 felt tentative and earthbound in his hands, perhaps requiring a few extra rehearsals to fully take wing.

Photo: © NdB 2020

Pavla Vykopalová made for a lovely exponent of the title role.  Her soprano has a delightfully peachy middle and her prayer, in particular, was genuinely sung.  The top, however, does sound problematic to my ears.  It has that pearly steeliness that the late Lucia Popp had, but also doesn’t spin up there and is inclined to tightness.  Again, she’s such a genuine actress and her Jenůfa was always deeply felt, that one put any reservations to one side.  Mattila’s Kostelnička took an act or so to warm up fully, but once she did, she held the stage with sheer force of personality.  What made her portrayal so interesting, is that that lunar beauty of her soprano is still very present, so that when she sang the more lyrical, higher reaching parts of the role, it felt in many respects that we were watching a Jenůfa later in life, trying to right the wrongs to which she had been subjected.  In that respect, it felt of a piece with Glaser’s staging.  It would be remiss not to mention that the registers have now parted company, but Mattila’s unique beauty of tone meant that she made the Kostelnička less of a harridan and more of an everywoman – and therein lies the power and the danger.

Photo: © NdB 2020

The remainder of the cast was definitely honourable.  What a pleasure it was to hear a Laca and a Števa who could cope with the high tessitura of their parts.  Richard Samek sang Števa with an Italianate tenor, confident at the top.  Peter Berger sang Laca assertively, with a burly tenor, although I do wish that he had varied the dynamics more frequently.  His extrovert singing gave his Laca an edge that suggested a rather brutal future for Jenůfa.  Jitka Zerhauová was a fount of humanity as the Grandmother, her rustic mezzo sounded genuinely mature, while Jiří Sulženko was a suitably gruff Stárek.  The remaining roles were all respectably sung and utterly idiomatic in utterance.

Photo: © NdB 2015

It was a privilege to be able to hear this house’s orchestra and chorus perform the work of their namesake.  They rewarded us with singing and playing of such conviction that it was impossible not to be moved.  There was much that was good in Glaser’s view of the work, although it suffered from personenregie that can only be described as rudimentary.  While there were some reservations along the way, this was an evening that satisfied though the sheer idiomatic knowledge of the work by the performers and their ability to make the text live.  It was rewarded with an extremely generous ovation by the Brno public, with Mattila given the honour of an immediate standing ovation. 

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