Archive for October 8, 2008

Jenufa

Posted in Music, Opera with tags , on October 8, 2008 by telescoper

Another day, another opera. Today I had to duck out of the usual post-seminar drinks and food and get down to the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay for one of only two performances in Cardiff by WNO this season of Jenufa by Leos Janacek.

You couldn’t wish for an opera more different in style and substance than Saturday’s Otello, although I suppose both operas would probably be classed as tragedies. Gone are the opulent sets and costumes and associated courtly intrigues of Otello. Instead we enter a world of drab and claustrophobic interiors within which a dark story of ordinary country folk unfolds in all its bleakness. Jenufa has a child by her lover, Steva, whom she hopes will marry her. When he refuses to do the honorable thing, Jenufa’s stepmother, Kostelnicka, drugs Jenufa and kills the baby, disposing of the body in a freezing lake. Jenufa is then persuaded to marry the dim but devoted Laca. In the final act, the baby’s body is found, Jenufa is accused and then Kostelnicka confesses her guilty act, claiming that she wanted to save Jenufa from disgrace. She goes off to be tried for the murder, while the steadfast Laca promises to stand by Jenufa come what may.

None of the characters is particularly sympathetic or even comprehensible. Laca (Peter Hoare) changes from a brutish oaf, who accidentally stabs Jenufa in the face in Act 1, to a doting husband in Act 3. Steva (Stephen Rooke) is superficially attractive but clearly a bit of a bounder. Kostelnicka (Susan Bickley) is severe, pompous and moralistic. Jenufa (Nuccia Focile) just seems a bit vacuous in Act 1 but progressively disintegrates under the stress of shame and rejection becomes increasingly morose and unpredictable as the opera goes on.

But these are not meant to be easy roles to understand. They are as inconsistent as real people, and as difficult to figure out.

On paper the plot and characterization seem very slight, but what holds it all together is Janacek’s wonderful music which seems to pull together all the rather ragged strands left dangling by the libretto. The score features lush romantic passages interspersed with snatches of folk tunes and jagged unresolved ideas that seem to mirror the fractured psychology engulfing Jenufa and Kostelnicka. Although the story is unrelentingly grim, there always seems to be something interesting going on in the music. Near the end, when Kostelnicka confesses the infanticide and accepts her punishment the music is particularly beautiful and even uplifting. However dark the deed, it seems to say, some form of redemption is always possible. How Janacek manages to conjure such a radiant burst of optimism at the end of such a dark tragedy is nothing short of miraculous.

I could listen to Janacek’s music for hours. As a matter of fact, now I think about it, that’s exactly what I did.

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