Frozen: Jenůfa from the Staatsoper Berlin

Janáček – Jenůfa

Jenůfa – Camilla Nyliund
Kostelnička – Evelyn Herlitzius
Laca Klemeň – Stuart Skelton
Števa Buryja – Ladislav Elgr
Grandmother Buryja – Hanna Schwarz
Mill Foreman – Jan Martiník
Mayor of the Village – David Oštrek
Karolka – Evelin Novak
Barena – Adriane Queiroz
Mayor’s Wife – Natalia Skrycka
Maid – Aytaj Shikhalizada
Jano – Victoria Randem

Staatsopernchor Berlin, Staatskapelle Berlin / Simon Rattle.
Stage director – Damiano Michieletto.  Video director – Beatrix Conrad.  

Staatsoper, Berlin, Germany.  Saturday, February 13th, 2021.  Streamed via 3Sat. 

This was due to be one of the hot tickets of the season at the Berlin Staatsoper.  A new staging of Jenůfa by one of the most intelligent and insightful stage directors around today, Damiano Michieletto, with the great Evelyn Herlitizus reprising her acclaimed Kostelnička and Camilla Nylund making her debut in the title role, under the direction of experienced Janáček conductor, Simon Rattle.  Unfortunately, the current sanitary situation prevented the house from presenting the work in front of an audience but fortunately, we were able to see a streaming thanks to the German broadcaster 3Sat.  There were a few allowances to the times we’re currently in – the chorus sang from the auditorium, although despite their scattered position the ensemble with the orchestra in the pit was spot on, and there was a sense that characters were maintaining a distance from each other in a way that might not have been the case a year ago.  Still, we are extremely fortunate that this new staging was able to be captured for posterity.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

Especially so, because Michieletto gives us a concentrated shot of theatrical adrenaline, even more evident here due to it being broadcast without intermissions.  He removes the folksy aspects of the work, instead setting it within a single set, the walls constructed from what appears to be Perspex, with costumes redolent of the 1970s or 80s.  The set reinforces the fact that here, privacy is an illusion and that the world in which the Kostelnička and Jenůfa operate has very little discretion, with nameless figures present in Acts 1 and 3.  Ice is also a constant presence in Michieletto’s vision, whether in the way Števa carries an enormous block onto stage and demolishes it when he doesn’t get called up for the army, or the huge stalactite shaped icicle that penetrates the set after the murder, reminding us constantly of the Kostelnička’s guilt and the reality of her acts.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

Those elements alone would give Michieletto’s staging much to think about, but where he excels is in the sheer detail of the individual performances from his central female characters.  Herlitzius’s Kostelnička is a constant presence from the very start, her influence palpable even before her first vocal entry.  Just as no privacy is possible, nothing escapes her attention.  Thanks to Beatrix Conrad’s camera work, we get to see how detailed Herlitzius and MIchieletto’s conception of the character is, particularly in Act 2 where, in her imprecations to Števa, we can see with incredible clarity not only how the Kostelnička still manages to have influence over a reluctant Števa, but how clear and logical the path to child killing really is.  Of course, over the small screen, one cannot experience the visceral excitement of the size of Herlitzius’s instrument live, but the way that she brought out the metal in the tone as she aimed for those high C flats, or the haunted nature of her hallucinations of death looking in at the end of Act 2, made her vocalism as compelling as her acting.  Again, she made full use the tonal range of her soprano as much as she exploited her physical presence, and the closing tableau of her Kostelnička sitting, broken as the ice melted over her was deeply haunting.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

Nylund’s Jenůfa was also utterly mesmerizing.  Through her acting, she brought out the full range of her character’s journey, from pain to forgiveness and resolution.  What struck me most about Nylund’s assumption of her role was the sheer range of vocal colour she exploited with the text.  She seemed to relish the words, so that even if one didn’t understand them, one found a true sense through Nylund’s vocal colouring of the meaning of the words and her character’s emotions.  Her gleaming soprano rose with ease through the soaring lines of the prayer and her lines of forgiveness to the Kostelnička were filled with humanity.  This may have been a role debut, but Nylund is already an exceptionally fine Jenůfa.  Michieletto staged the final scene as something rather hopeful, suggesting that Jenůfa may finally find happiness with a second chance.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

Hanna Schwarz reprised her now familiar Grandmother, sung in her still fruity mezzo.  Ladislav Elgr was a swaggeringly extrovert Števa.  Through his physicality he brought out Števa’s brutal edge, yet in that roughness one could see what seduced Jenůfa.  He coped well with the extreme tessitura, for the most part.  Stuart Skelton sang Laca with confidence, although with a sense that the tessitura was somewhat demanding – he made it through the higher reaches of the part on experience.  Next to the sheer electric theatrical energy produced by Nylund and Herlitzius, his stage presence was rather blank, awkward even, although this was of a piece with Michieletto’s view of the character.  But then, there might be a message there – that happiness isn’t to be found with the swaggering, but instead with the shy and introverted.  The remainder of the cast reflected the excellent standards of the house, with a special mention for David Oštrek’s handsomely sung Mayor.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

Rattle led a reading that ideally combined that unique Janáčekian combination of rhythmic impetus and long lyrical lines, if perhaps without quite the rhythmic precision that Netopil brought out in Amsterdam.  His tempi, however, felt absolutely right except for two places.  The closing measures of Act 2 felt that the needed a little more impulse, particularly following Herlitzius’s horrifying exclamation, and the closing pages of Act 3 did feel a little rushed.  The orchestra was on very good form, a few brass accidents notwithstanding and, as discussed above, the chorus sang with impressive accuracy despite being scattered around.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

With this Jenůfa, the Staatsoper has given us an intelligently-cast and riveting evening.  Michieletto’s staging distills the action into a concentrated burst of energy, giving us the story of two women whose lives are interlinked by tragedy but who, despite the difficulty of the circumstances, try to make the most of what they have and reminds us of the power of forgiveness for even the ultimate crimes.  There’s a humanity to Michieletto’s vision of the work, that distillation of humanity despite its considerable flaws, that I found exceptionally convincing.  With two remarkable performances from Nylund and Herlitzius and satisfyingly conducted, this is a Jenůfa that deserves to be seen.

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