Leoš Janáček, Jenůfa (1904)
Based on: the play Její pastorkyňa (Her Stepdaughter) by Gabriela Preissová
Setting: Moravia, 19th century
Sung in: Czech
Plot in 101 words or less: Oh, what a tangled web this stepfamily weaves. Števa is heir to mill-owner Grandmother Buryja and sleeping with cousin Jenůfa, leaving his half-brother Laca out in the cold twice over. Jenůfa has a secret hot cross bun in the oven, but Števa don’t care. Laca does care so naturally he slashes Jenůfa across the face. Števa loses interest in damaged goods and upgrades to the mayor’s daughter. Laca still wants to put a ring on it, but not with a baby on board. Stepmother Kostelnička decides to “help” by solving the “problem” while Jenůfa sleeps. Yikes. Still, wedding! Those wacky Czechs!
Well, it’s official, Janáček has completely ruined my perfectly lovely “I don’t like modern music unless the composer’s name begins with P” rule. Having seen and liked both Káťa Kabanová and Věc Makropulos at the Opéra de Paris, and now Jenůfa at San Francisco Opera, I think I have to admit there may be something to twentieth-century music after all. Goddammit. [Side note: I foolishly did not listen to Mark at A Beast in a Jungle and missed Věc Makropulos when it was first here in 2010, but La Maratonista and I will be seeing the revival of that production this fall.]
This was truly gorgeous. I mean, it doesn’t get much darker than infanticide, but Janáček makes it work somehow. Karita Mattila steals the show as Kostelnička, but the cast is all-around superb, from Malin Byström in her SFO debut as Jenůfa to Scott Quinn as proto-bro Števa to William Burden (last seen as the dastardly Peter in The Gospel of Mary Magdalene) as Laca. Fantastic singing and acting by all.
The music was particularly fine with Jiří Bělohlávek at the helm. [Side note: Is it me, or does the opening of this opera sound like “Aquarium” from Saint-Saëns’ Le Carnaval des animaux? Or, for the film buffs out there, Ennio Morricone.] I’m certainly not the best at judging conductors but this performance seemed to have just the right tempo and lyricism, a bit more natural and relaxed than the recording I have, which is Bernard Haitink at the Royal Opera House. Seriously, y’all, I’m just so pissed I didn’t see Bělohlávek with Mattila for Makropulos.
Anyway, moving on…
As for the production, I thought the gigantic rock metaphor was a bit much, but overall I thought the stripped down sets worked. And I have been complaining about production design throughout the 2015–2016 season. The costumes were right on the money for the setting—shout out to the designer for the gorgeous coat on the mayor’s wife.
There are five more performances of Jenůfa at the War Memorial Opera House on June 19, 22, 25, 28 and July 1. Catch it if you can.