Stairway to Heaven: Jenůfa at the Grand Théâtre de Genève

Janáček – Jenůfa

Jenůfa – Corrine Winters
Kostelnička – Evelyn Herlitzius
Laca Klemeň – Daniel Brenna
Števa Buryja – Ladislav Elgr
Grandmother Buryja – Carole Wilson
Mill Foreman – Michael Kraus
Mayor of the Village – Michael Mofidian
Karolka – Eugénie Joneau
Barena – Ito Mayako
Mayor’s Wife – Céline Kot
Maid – Kim Miyoung
Jano – Borbála Szuromi

Chœur du Grand Théâtre de Genève, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande / Tomáš Hanus.
Stage director – Tatjana Gürbaca.

Grand Théâtre de Genève, Geneva, Switzerland.  Saturday, May 7th, 2022.

This new production of Jenůfa marks the first at the Grand Théâtre de Genève for over twenty years.  For it, the house engaged an international cast with the production led by Berliner stage director, Tatjana Gürbaca.  It was also notable that the house engaged rising Czech conductor and Music Director of Welsh National Opera, Tomáš Hanus, to lead cast and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande for the run. 

Photo: © Carole Parodi

Gürbaca, together with set designer Henrik Ahr, has given us a staging that looks imposing.  A single set, consisting of a staircase that stretches up seemingly into the heavens, combined with wooden walls that seem to imprison the cast, gave us a visual that represents both the closed society of the village and the fact that the only way to escape is through death.  Within this environment, Gürbaca allows her singing-actors to drive the action forward – particularly in Act 2 where, thanks to the strong acting abilities of Corinne Winters’ Jenůfa and Evelyn Herlitzius’ Kostelnička, we are given a performance of riveting power. 

Photo: © Carole Parodi

Indeed, Gürbaca populates her universe with particularly strong characters.  Carole Wilson’s Grandmother Buryja clearly spoils both Laca and Števa.  I found it particularly striking how she just watched and failed to make any attempt to intervene while Laca threatened Jenůfa with the knife, perhaps in her idealistic view of him thinking he would never go through with it.  Similarly, she encouraged Števa in his excesses.  In Act 3, Gürbaca also brought out the expectations that the newlyweds would have children, with Karolka giving Jenůfa a baby bottle and the village girls conducting some kind of fertility ritual with the couple.  It was striking how the audience around me visually gasped as Karolka gave Jenůfa the bottle, the impact of which was clear.  Throughout the evening, Jenůfa was clearly an outsider, whether dressed in a modern evening dress in Act 3, compared with the rustic traditional costumes for the remainder of the cast, or in Act 1 where Jenůfa appeared visually uncomfortable to participate with the crowd in their celebrations. 

Photo: © Carole Parodi

What Gürbaca gives us, then, is a logical and clear staging.  It doesn’t quite have the visceral and sheer emotional impact of Bieito’s seen in Rouen last week – it seems too prosaic for that.  The chorus was also not quite optimally directed.  While many of them did present vivid individual personalities, there were also a number who were just parked on the stage to sing to the front.  The closing tableau – no spoilers – also felt a little de trop, although I’d much rather Gürbaca’s extremely happy ending to Katie Mitchell’s Amsterdam cynicism, for instance.  It is, however, a very good staging that allows the cast to give compelling performances.

Photo: © Carole Parodi

In the pit, Hanus also supported his cast well.  He drew out superlative playing from an OSR on sensational form.  What Hanus achieved was to provide that quintessential Janáčekian combination of driving rhythms and long, lyrical melodies.  I’ve never heard that constant presence of the knife threatening under the surface in the opening to Act 2, or the lilting balletic nature of the Act 1 prelude.  That said, there were a few moments where Hanus let tension dip – for instance in the closing trio of Act 2.  Similarly, I wish he had let the orchestra rip more in response to Herlitzius’s searing outbursts in Act 2 – she could most certainly ride any volume he could throw at her.  Hanus did keep the disparate forces together in the Act 1 celebrations and throughout the idiomatic nature of his conducting was always apparent.  What was also apparent tonight, throughout the cast, was the sheer clarity of the diction, the words always used to guide the musical line.

Photo: © Carole Parodi

Herlitzius was a phenomenal Kostelnička.  The voice is of course huge, but what also struck me tonight was the way that Herlitzius had fully integrated the role into the voice, crossing the registers with ease, completely integrated from top to bottom.  She was a striking stage presence, moving from uptight, chain-smoking matriarch in Act 1, to a broken woman, repeatedly drying a single plate, in Act 3.  Her big moments in Act 2, both the repeated high C-flats or the terror of feeling death peering in, were given to us in focused, unflinching bursts of sound that pinned the spectator to their seat.  Herlitzius gave us what great operatic portrayals should always be – the combination of overwhelming vocalism, with acting so compelling that one is completely taken in.  Herlitzius is the greatest Elektra of our time and now, as she moves into the next stage of her career, it’s clear that she is also the Kostelnička de nos jours.  She doesn’t just sing her characters, she lives them.

Photo: © Carole Parodi

Winters gave us a generously sung and heartfelt portrayal of the title role, everything sung off the text, the words used as the starting point to colour the vocal line.  Her relatively dark, yet peaches and cream soprano, is founded in a generous chest register.  The voice does have a tendency to sit slightly under the note and the top, while gleaming, does sound that like it doesn’t ideally spin fully.  She sang her prayer with soaring lyricism and filled her singing in the final Act with warm humanity.  Her acting was always genuine and she had clear chemistry with her castmates. 

Photo: © Carole Parodi

Daniel Brenna sang Laca with a big, bulky tenor of hefty size.  He clearly brought out the fact of a man with explosive brutality under the surface through his acting, while also mapping Laca’s journey to remorse and love through honeyed lyricism at the end.  His tenor does need a bit of heavy lifting to get up to the top, but he sang throughout with generosity.  Ladislav Elgr coped well with Števa’s highly demanding tessitura, also showing his clear remorse in the final act.  Carole Wilson brought her characterful, piquant mezzo to the role of Grandmother Buryja, making the most of the opportunities to portray a vibrant woman who still enjoyed having fun, while Michael Kraus was a tower of vocal strength as the Foreman.  The remainder of the cast reflected the high standards of the house, while Alan Woodbridge’s chorus sang with generous amplitude and maintained tight ensemble. 

Photo: © Carole Parodi

This was an evening that gave us the opportunity to see a logical and engaging staging, combined with highly compelling individual performances.  Gürbaca’s staging is distinguished by the clarity of its storytelling and for giving the cast the opportunity to create vivid, living characters.  Musically, there was so much to admire tonight – Herlitzius’ overwhelming assumption of the Kostelnička, Winters’ sincerely sung Jenůfa, and Brenna and Elgr’s command of their roles.  Combined with an orchestra on superlative form and idiomatic conducting, this was a satisfying evening in the theatre.  It was received with a warm ovation from the genevois public.

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