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A Brave Decision

Teatro de la Maestranza
02/16/2023 -  & February 18, 20, 2023
Leos Janácek: Jenůfa
Agneta Eichenholz (Jenůfa), Angeles Blancas (Kostelnivka Buryja), Peter Berger (Laca Klemen), Thomas Atkins (Steva Buryja), Nadine Weissmann (Grandmother Buryja), Isaac Galán (The Mill Foreman), Felipe Bou (Mayor), Marifé Nogales (Mayor’s wife), Marta Ubieta (Karolka), Zayra Ruiz (A shepherdess), Patricia Calvache (Barena), Ruth González (Jano), Alicia Naranjo (Aunt)
Coro Teatro de la Maestranza, Inigo Sampil (chorus master), Real Orquesta Sinfónica de Sevilla, Will Humburg (conductor)
Robert Carsen (stage director), Maria Lamont (assistant stage director), Patrick Kinmonth (sets & costumes), Robert Carsen & Peter Van Praet (lighting)

A. Eichenholz, A. Blancas (© Guillermo Mendo)

Jenůfa was Janácek’s third opera and first operatic triumph. Son of a schoolteacher in the region of Moravia, his musical talent convinced his father to allow him a musical career. Never a conformist, he was by all accounts a gifted though perturbed student at the Brno Conservatory and later the Leipzig Conservatory. An enfant terrible, he wrote a scathing review of his teacher’s conducting at the Brno Conservatory which got him expelled (his teacher later relented, allowing his return). Later in life, another virulent review of an opera by Czech composer Karel Kovarovic gained him the latter’s everlasting enmity. When Kovarovic eventually became Director of the National Theatre in Prague, he understandably refused to premiere Jenůfa there as retribution. This bitterness persisted for twelve years after its 1904 Brno premiere, until he was forced to yield to immense popular pressure.

The 1904 premiere of Jenůfa in Brno took place when Janácek (born in 1854) was already middle‑aged. He had made his living as a provincial music teacher and organist in Brno, but after Jenůfa’s debut in Prague and its ensuing international success, he embarked on a remarkable second period of productivity during which he wrote what are now considered to be major works: Kátia Kabanová (1921); The Cunning Little Vixen (1924); The Makropoulos Case (1926); From the House of the Dead (1928); Taras Bulba (1921); Sinfonietta (1926); the Glagolitic Mass (1927); String Quartet No. 1 (1924); and String Quartet No. 2 (1928).

Staunchly anti‑Wagnerian, Janácek firmly believed in creating a new musical idiom inspired by his Czech heritage. For years he researched the folklore of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia. He was also interested in the inflection of the Czech language, which he integrated into his operatic compositions.

More than a century after its world premiere, Seville’s Teatro la Maestranza made the brave decision to stage Jenůfa in a city which hasn’t ever before enjoyed its production. Assembling a great cast, and with the inspired staging of Canadian stage director Robert Carsen assured an enthusiastic public reception that did not disappoint.

Though the story is typical of rural Czech society in the early twentieth century, it’s a universal story of turmoil and family tension in a conservative society. Contemporary with the Italian verismo of Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano and Catalani, it is musically and dramatically vastly superior. A quartet of leading roles rather than the usual amorous duo lend dramatic density to the action, especially since all four characters–Jenůfa, her stepmother Kostenicka, Steva and Laca–evolve significantly throughout the opera.

Jenůfa was not the opera’s original title; it was originally named Her Stepdaughter, for at the center of the drama is the difficult love of the Sacristan, Kostelnicka, for her stepdaughter Jenůfa. Often, the role of the stepmother is sung by a declining grande dame, but not here. Angeles Blancas is a star, and very much in her prime, much admired for her Emilia Marty in Vĕc Makropulos (Brno, Cardiff, Strasbourg, Venice) and Kostelnicka in Jenůfa (Palermo, Bologna), a true rarity for a Spanish singer. Kostelnicka, a dour woman at the beginning of the opera, initially rebukes Jenůfa for her irresponsible behaviour, but becomes more fragile as she witnesses her stepdaughter hiding in her own house to give birth. When she discovers Steva will marry the mayor’s daughter and has lost interest in the now disfigured Jenůfa, she encourages Laca’s interest. As he would not be ready to raise Steva’s child as his own, Kostelnicka decides to give Jenůfa a sleeping potion in order to drown the hapless baby.

A devout woman, she realizes the horrible sin she has committed, and is rightly devastated by it. When the corpse is discovered and the villagers want to lynch Jenůfa, Kostelnicka confesses her crime and Jenůfa relieved from any punishment. Angeles Blancas admirably conveys Kostelnicka’s different facets and the changes she undergoes without resorting to facile histrionics, a temptation resorted to by many an aging diva. It is precisely thanks to Blancas being in her prime that she can afford such sobriety. The scene between Kostelnicka and Jenůfa in which the latter forgives her stepmother, knowing her actions were borne of love and not malice is transformational for both women, and devastatingly effective, judging by the rapt audience reaction. Singers with impressive acting skills can pull this off convincingly and without excess.

Jenůfa is seen at the start of the opera as a naïve girl enamoured with the handsome but wayward Steva. Through her tribulations, becoming pregnant and subsequently rejected by Steva, and finally losing her baby, she matures into a loving and forgiving woman. Swedish soprano Agneta Eichenholz was perfectly cast in this role, as she had both the vocal range and the temperament for the role. Initially somewhat tepid in the opening scene, she quickly recovered, and was in fine form until the denouement. Endowed with a versatile and expressive voice, she had the perfect range needed for this role. She moved intensely in the Act II “Salve Regina,” the most lyrical scene in the opera. Not finding her baby when she awakens from her drug‑induced slumber, Jenůfa prays for its safety, at the very moment her stepmother Kostelnicka drowns it. A harrowing scene!

Steva begins as a spoiled and immature man depending on his good looks, status and money, and becomes despicable when he rejects the woman he ruined once she is disfigured. Thanks to Carsen’s subtle staging, he appears more human once his child’s corpse is found, and he realizes his responsibility in the crime.

Also of interest is Janácek’s critical view of class inequality. The rich Steva gets an exemption from being drafted in the army, likely thanks to his money, as hinted in the folk song that Steva’s “friends” sing. Carsen astutely has the men who were themselves recruited as part of the celebratory crowd, to underline the oppressive power of money. They and the rest of the crowd snatch whatever bills Steva throws at them in his jubilation. Part of the tension between stepbrothers Laca and Steva is Laca’s resentment of Steva inheriting the family mill, while Laca is treated as a hired hand even by his own grandmother.

Laca is first seen as a petty man, unable to accept that Jenůfa prefers his stepbrother. He becomes a monster when he disfigures Jenůfa to render her unappealing to Steva. Once Jenůfa shows him gratitude for proposing to marry her despite her condition, he is gradually transformed by love. As the roles of Laca and Steva are both tenors, it is essential that their voices be different. New Zealander Thomas Atkins, who sings Steva, has a beautiful Mozartian lyric tenor, while Slovak tenor Peter Berger has a more spinto lyric tenor, more suited to the role of Laca.

Thanks to Will Humburg’s masterful conducting, the Real Orquesta Sinfónica de Sevilla excelled, performing this rarely‑played repertoire.

To convey the oppressiveness of village life, Robert Carsen’s staging has the villagers peeking through the windows of the Buryja house throughout the opera. Their presence is measured perfectly so as not to distract in scenes where one needs to concentrate on the interaction between the protagonists. The use of dark earth as the floor of the family house conveyed the predominance of the land and everyone’s connection to it. The claustrophobic atmosphere was accentuated by the excellent use of lighting.

The opera’s powerful finale was rendered even more so by the brilliant stage direction. The villagers intrude into the house once the baby’s corpse is discovered on Jenůfa’s and Laca’s wedding day. They dismantle the house, with each section pointed like a knife towards the Buryja family. They depart with the disconnected walls, leaving Jenůfa and Laca alone. The previously crowded stage became bare, and as the orchestra reached its musical zenith, rain fell, as if cleansing the couple of their sordid past. This catharsis was made more overwhelming by the facial expressions and the syncopated but natural movements of Agneta Eichenholz and Peter Berger. It was a magical moment reminiscent of the ending of Fellini’s Le notti di Cabiria when Giulietta Massina (Cabiria) reverses her ordeal, turning it into a paean to hope and to life’s possibilities.

Ossama el Naggar



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