Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Czech it out

I saw Glimmerglass Opera's production of Leos Janacek's "Jenufa" on Friday. I had previously seen only one full-length opera before, performed by undergrad college's opera company. In watching a DVD recording of a performance of "Jenufa" at Glyndebourne in England, I dimly recalled having heard a selection from the opera in one of the Company's revue performances. The DVD performances left something to be desired (mismatches between cast and their characters, lack of emotion, the general problems of a fixed-camera recording of live theater), but nevertheless I was excited to see the performance at Glimmerglass.

In short, it was truly outstanding. The principal female characters (Jenufa, her step-mother Kostelnicka and her grandmother Burjya) carried the performance, with capable performances from the prinicipal males. As Jenufa, Maria Kanyova had just the right body type and mannerisms to play the frail, put-upon lead. As the Kostelnicka, a stern, devoutly religious woman, Elizabeth Byrne showed excellent emotional range, initially assertive and domineering, then devious and self-doubting, and finally crippled and haunted by the nearly unspeakable crime she commits. Both had excellent soprano voices, equally skilled in both smooth, lyrical passages and more rhythmic, quasi-recitative sections.

From the third row of the 900-or-so seat auditorium, the orchestra occasionally proved too powerful in accompanying the singers as they played a dense, rhythmically-complex score. All of the singers had a moment or two or being drowned out by the orchestra, most notably tenor Roger Honeywell, who played the lowly, lovelorn mill worker Laca, who was covered up even during his some of his most intense moments during the first act. Honeywell came on strong during the more emotionally-understated second act, overshadowing the other male lead, Scott Piper. Piper was flat and largely uninteresting as the puffed-up mill owner Steva, keeping his hands in his pockets for much of the production, even during the tumultuous accusations of the third act. Both had fine voices, but Honeywell brought much more character and expression to his role.

The setting of the opera by director Jonathan Miller in the American Midwest of the early 20th century brought just the right atmosphere of desperation to the proceedings. Simple, sometimes dingy costumes; a spare, rickety-looking front porch; stained and faded wallpaper on the house's interior -- all of these staging elements underscored the drama's hard-bitten emotional core. All of the principal characters are looking for something *more*, whether in love, escape, the hope of a new child, or spiritual transcendence. And it just isn't there. Solace can't be found in the landscape; in one of her supplicant prayer, Jenufa calls her home "the valley of tears." The characters cling to whatever they can, and ultimately end up smothering their hopes. Though Jenufa and Laca are in love and together at the opera's end (here I'll omit the familiar but, in this production, newly unsettling entanglements of the plot), they are in tears and clutching one another hands desperately. Neither has what they sought the way they hoped to have it, and that idea is at the heart of the work's tragedy.

A few minor quibbles with expression and with balance between singers and the orchestra, but overall Glimmerglass' "Jenufa" was a delight, though difficult, and a triumph, though tragic.

1 comment:

Jon Ross said...

And what the hell was up with the stepmom going outside in the middle of winter without proper footwear? Jenufa, indeed.

Why don't you allow anonymous comments? That's a tad bit weak.