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Ensemble

Unsentimental Realism

HOWARD SMITH was at
Janácek's 'Jenufa' in Wellington

 

Jenufa, the third and last offering of NBR New Zealand Opera's 2008 season proved a production with dazzling clarity of focus and extraordinary expressive power. It had remarkable principals; most notably Anne Sophie Duprels (title role), Margaret Medlyn (Kostelnicka Buryja) and Tom Randle (Laca). Perhaps the most telling coup for NZ Opera -- CEO Aidan Lang had imported famed German director Niklaus Lehnoff: a creative artist with credentials second to none.

In recent years Lehnoff productions have included Tosca : Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Chailly, the Chorus of Netherlands Opera with soloists Bryn Terfel and Catherine Malfitano (1989); Lohengrin : Baden-Baden Festspielhaus, Deutsches Symphonie Orchester conducted by Kent Nagano, with Solveig Kringelborn and Klaus Florian Vogt (2006); Schreker's Die Gezeichneten : Berlin German Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kent Nagano, live at the Salzburg Festival (2005); and Hans Werner Henze's Boulevard Solitude : El Liceu Opera, Liceu Grand Theatre Symphony Orchestra conducted by Zoltan Pesko (2007).

Anne Sophie Duprels as Jenufa. Photo © 2008 Adrian Malloch
Anne Sophie Duprels as Jenufa. Photo © 2008 Adrian Malloch

It was he who directed Jenufa with the Glyndebourne Festival Chorus and LPO conducted by Andrew Davis (1989); and now its Southern Hemisphere première (sung in Czech) was in Wellington with Lehnoff at the helm.

Before the Saturday performance [18 October 2008, St James Theatre, Wellington, New Zealand] Lang told 'Friends of NBR NZ Opera' that Jenufa is much like a play with music, in which Janácek stands aside, refusing to sentimentalize or manipulate his audience.

And so it proved -- director Lehnoff shaped the drama with an asperity and discipline reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman's productions of Strindberg for the Kungliga Dramatiska Teatern, Stockholm. The result was an evening of opera to linger in, and haunt the mind for some time to come.

Anne Sophie Duprels as Jenufa and Margaret Medlyn as Kostelnicka. Photo © 2008 Adrian Malloch
Anne Sophie Duprels as Jenufa and Margaret Medlyn as Kostelnicka. Photo © 2008 Adrian Malloch

Janácek wrote Jenufa between 1894 and 1903 basing his libretto on the play 'Její pastorkyna' ('Her Stepdaughter') by Gabriela Preissová (1862-1946), also known as Matilda Dumontová; a representative of realism and dramaturge at the National Theater. Like Preissová's original work, the harrowing musical story of jealousy, infanticide, guilt, redemption and forgiveness is characterized by its unsentimental realism.

It's as well to remember that in 1881 Janácek had married Zdenka (née Schulzová). Since then their infant son Vladimir died and as Leos was completing Jenufa in 1903, the 21-year-old daughter, Olga, lay dying. Thereupon the composer vowed to tie his score with black ribbons. To make matters worse; as documented in Zdenka Janáckova's memoirs, My Life with Janácek -- during the Prague première of Jenufa, the composer was having an affair with singer Gabriela Horvátová. These events tarnished Leos and Zdenka's marriage; a rift which never entirely healed.

Returning to Wellington, 2008, the opening curtain rose on Tobias Hoheisel's Glynebourne set, a 19th century Moravian mill yard with its grey containing wall, featureless distant hills and a slowly-turning 24/7 water wheel. And from these earliest scenes soprano Anne Sophie Duprels (Jenufa) radiated lyrical splendour and resolute character, tempered with moments of touching vulnerability.

Margaret Medlyn as Kostelnicka and Anne Sophie Duprels as Jenufa. Photo © 2008 Adrian Malloch
Margaret Medlyn as Kostelnicka and Anne Sophie Duprels as Jenufa. Photo © 2008 Adrian Malloch

One can see why Ms Duprels' 2008 season and future work have involved her in two other Janácek operas: The Excursions of Mr Broucek (Opera North and Scottish Opera) and Katya Kabanova (Opera Holland Park). I can hardly imagine the Glyndebourne lead, Roberta Alexander, aged forty in 1989, came across with comparable barely suppressed excitement at the prospect of marriage.

American tenor Tom Randle's initial work establishing the irresolute Laca Klemen (Jenufa's suitor) left a little to be desired, though as the prospects for Laca and Steva Buryja; his half brother, the mill owner (Jenufa's lover) were reversed, Randle's performance assumed notably heroic proportions. Steva's self-aggrandizement was arguably a shade underplayed by Jamie Allen, though brief, busy appearances by the mill foreman (baritone John Antoniou) fittingly underscored this key role in village working life.

The most commanding performance, beyond question, proved that of soprano Margaret Medlyn, a doughty God-faring presence; gradually deranged as she conveyed the inner torment of Kostelnicka Buryjovka, stepmother to Jenufa, and murderess of her infant child. Kostelnicka's guilt and anguish were almost palpable.

A scene from New Zealand Opera's 'Jenufa'. Photo © 2008 Adrian Malloch
A scene from New Zealand Opera's 'Jenufa'. Photo © 2008 Adrian Malloch

I'm curious now to see the 1989 Glydebourne stepmother with German soprano, Anja Silja (born 1940). It is available on an Arthaus Musik DVD, released in 2001.

Acts 2 and 3 were enacted in a spacious utility-dining room with shuttered Byzantine windows. A side door and back access to other rooms facilitated these active scenes and the small wall shrine served as a reminder of the divinity to whom Kostelnicka now felt herself answerable.

When the shutters were first opened and reference made to moonlight, the lighting was over-bright for night time illumination. And when Kostelnicka and Steva moved step-by-step, sideways and backward from beneath the shrine, you could almost 'hear' the players figuring and counting out their moves.

Tom Randle as Laca and Anne Sophie Duprels as Jenufa. Photo © 2008 Adrian Malloch
Tom Randle as Laca and Anne Sophie Duprels as Jenufa. Photo © 2008 Adrian Malloch

As the denouement drew closer we met effectively-drawn subordinate characters; from Act 1, Jenufa's grandmother Buryjovka (Helen Medlyn), a large, suitably grandiloquent Mayor (Richard Green) and his garrulous spouse (Carmel Carroll); Steva's new flighty belle, Karolka (Kate Lineham), colourfully-attired folk dancing girls and assorted millworker/villagers.

Rhythms of Czech village speech are consistently incorporated within Janácek's operatic writing. These were unflinchingly taken care of as the sixty-part Wellington Vector Orchestra under NZ Opera's Music director -- the South Wales-born conductor Wyn Davies -- excelled themselves, embracing the composer's marvellously gritty Jenufa score with unremitting authority.

In reference to Strindberg, Bergman once said 'He has followed me all of my life: I have loved him, hated him and thrown his books in the wall, but rid of him, I cannot get.'

Tom Randle as Laca, Jamie Allen as Steva and Anne Sophie Duprels as Jenufa. Photo © 2008 Adrian Malloch
Tom Randle as Laca, Jamie Allen as Steva and Anne Sophie Duprels as Jenufa. Photo © 2008 Adrian Malloch

I cannot help but feel a similar creative symbiosis links Lehnoff and Janácek. Because of this, together with NBR New Zealand Opera vocal and dramatic skills co-joined with administrative daring, Jenufa ranks as one the Southern Hemisphere's most outstanding 21st century opera triumphs.

Copyright © 22 October 2008 Howard Smith, Masterton, New Zealand

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