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A tour de force

Los Angeles
Los Angeles Opera
09/27/2007 -  09/30 and 10/4, 07, 10, 13
Leoš Janácek: Jenufa
Karita Mattila (Jenufa), Eva Urbanová (Kostelnicka Burjova), Kim Begley (Laca Klemen), Jorma Silvasti (Števa Buryja), Elizabeth Bishop (Grandmother Buryja), Jason Stearns (The Mill Foreman), James Creswell (The Mayor of the Village), Lauren McNeese (Karolka), Margaret Thompson (The Mayor’s Wife), Lori Ann Fuller (Jano), Rena Harms (Barena), Natasha Flores (A Herdswoman), Nicole Fernandes Cole (A Woman’s Voice), Steven Pence (A Man’s Voice), Jennifer Wallace (Aunt)
Stuart Canin (Los Angeles Opera Concert Master), Grant Gershon (Associate Conductor and Chorus Master), James Conlon (Conductor)
Olivier Tambosi (Director), Frank Philipp Schlössmann (Designer), Max Keller (Original Lighting Designer), Brian Gale (Lighting Designer)

When one thinks of nationalistic Czech music, the names Antonín Dvorák and Bedrich Smetana come to light. Yet another gifted composer to round out this trio of Middle Eastern European artists is that of Leoš Janácek. Although Janácek’s musical acumen began while schooled in an Augustinian monastery at a tender age of eleven, it was not until much later that he completed his first operatic work Šárka (1888) at the ripe old age of sixty.

The lack of success upon completion of Šárka dissuaded Janácek from pursuing this style filled with Germanic influence (pervasive amongst his contemporaries referenced above), by seeking alternative venues such as folk music derived from his region specific land of Moravia. Characteristically different in tone and rhythm, his localized music was fresh and appealing and was well received by the public at large.

Leoš Janácek is known for works of strange and unique subject matter, and Jenufa (literally translated, Her Stepdaughter) is no exception. This, his third operatic work, is based on the unsettling 1890 play by native Gabriela Preissová in which Janácek brings to bear the meaning of verismo in every sense of the word.

Finnish-born Karita Mattila makes Jenufa one of her signature roles in which she acts and sings with intense clarity and palpability only to experience sexual transgression, optimism of marriage, horror of death, and ultimate forgiveness. This test of human endurance is kindled by the macabre actions of the Kostelnicka (literally translated, Her Stepmother), sung expressively by the talented Eva Urbanová in one of the most compelling characters in operatic history.

Jorma Silvasti’s veritable Števa is the feckless man fathering Jenufa’s baby, failing miserably by not marrying his betrothed while muddying up the Kostelnička’s own selfish plans to save face and self-ego. Add to this recipe of disaster is a dash of the mellifluent voice of British tenor Kim Begley performing the role of Laca Klemen who continuously spars with his half-brother, Števa by concocting every reason as self-justification to marry Jenufa.

Janácek’s “speech-melody” is a credit to his name with representative examples of the four principals noted above. It is with great effectiveness that each character is distinctly placed upon the stage with a specific oration in mind. Independent from one another these natural dialogues rise above the anchoring orchestral composition.

Supplementing the emotional charge on stage are Frank Philipp Schlössmann’s effectively dour garments in shades of gray and black as depicted in the principals and chorus members with apparent exception of Jenufa’s meager white smock and nightgown during Act I and Act II. Lighting is another critical component for a successful Jenufa that yields maximum impact during those poignant moments, all to the gifts of Max Keller and Brian Gale.

Elizabeth Bishop’s role as Grandmother Buryja contributes to an already strong cast in addition to the sufficient talents of Jason Stearns’ Mill Forman, Lori Ann Fuller’s Jano, and The Mayor’s family (James Creswell, Lauren McNeese, and Margaret Thompson).

The lackluster theatrical sets are minimal to say the least, yet difficult in stretching the boundaries of the viewers’ imagination (such as the Kostelnicka’s home interior that includes an irrelevant rock). This is a disappointment in an already well-executed performance.

Jenufa is a tour de force thanks to the great efforts of James Conlon and the directorship of Olivier Tambosi. Fraught with controversy and blistering frankness, Jenufa is raw and unyielding. This is a riveting work not to be missed.

Christie Grimstad



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