|Laura Wilde (Jenůfa), Gina Perregrino (Herdswoman), Katherine Beck (Karolka), Kathleen Reveille (Mayor’s Wife), and Richard Trey Smagur (Števa Buryja) (Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera)
Contemporaneous with Puccini, Leoš Janáček wrote a very sad opera about sin and redemption in a small Moravian village; Jenüfa premiered in1904 after six years of compositional labor; it would not be heard in the composer's original version for seventy years. This is one of the first "prose" operas.
The grim story deals with issues of unrequited love, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, fraternal envy, violence, and infanticide. The eponymous heroine (soprano Laura Wilde) is in love with the fickle Števa (tenor Richard Trey Smagur) and is carrying his child. His half-brother Laca (tenor Alexander Lewis) is envious of Števa's favored position in the family and is jealous of Števa's relatioship with Jenufa. How this all works out is a gripping story.
Two elements pleased us even before attending the performance. Firstly, the opera is sung in Czech; this is a difficult language but every time we hear it sung we are impressed by how wedded are word and vocal line. Janácek wrote the libretto himself so this element is particularly important.
Secondly, the opera has been cast with singers we know and love, some of whom we heard last year as Santa Fe Apprentices, others we know from conservatories in New York or from competitions.
One of the hallmarks of a great production is that one can identify with the characters and care about them. The fact that the piece was updated to the mid-20th c. did not detract from its impact. This story might even take place today in a small town gripped by religious fundamentalism.
The eponymous Jenufa has been captivated by a man of poor character who seduces her and abandons her when her face has been disfigured. Who could not identify with an innocent young woman who falls for a narcissistic man! Soprano Laura Wilde (once an
apprentice at Santa Fe Opera) used her generous instrument and agile body to create a Jenufa we could really care about. The dénouement of the drama finds her accepting her fate and possibly finding happiness with Laca. All of the emotions she experienced were revealed through vocal coloration and body language---anticipation, joy, anxiety, despair, grief, forgiveness, and reconciliation. What a stunning performance!
As Kostelnička, soprano Patricia Racette turned in a highly memorable performance. The intensity of her vocal expression and the measured use of vibrato made her a sympathetic monster. Under the stress of living in a religious community as the widow of the church warden, her experience of shame over her step-daughter's pregnancy and her efforts to find the best for Jenufa clashed with her religious beliefs; her desperate act left her feeling sick and guilty. Ms. Racette made her climactic realization --how she loved herself more than others -- convincing evidence of her emotional growth.
As the rascal Števa, tenor Richard Trey Smagur (well remembered from his Apprentice performances) created a character imbued with childish narcissism, caring only for his own desires--drinking and philandering. Whilst Jenufa was grieving he was busy courting the daughter of the Mayor. Mr. Smagur created a thoroughly detestable character but sang so well we were ready to forgive him anything. Additionally, he has a compelling stage presence that dominated the stage.
Tenor Alexander Lewis, whom we haven't heard in a few years, sounded terrific as Laca. Sulking around the stage as a grievance collector when the opera opens, he explodes with anger and slashes Jenufa's face. By the end of the opera he has matured emotionally; forgiven by Jenufa, he seems prepared to make a good husband for her. All of these emotions were made clear by Mr. Lewis, both in his vocal coloration and in his posture.
We enjoyed the performance of baritone Will Liverman, also a former Apprentice at Santa Fe Opera. His character was the foreman of the mill which Števa inherited and had the task of announcing the fact that Števa had not been drafted. His voice always lends a sense of import.
Renowned mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer, a Santa Fe resident, created the role of Grandmother Buryjovka, mother-in-law of Kostelnička, and a seemingly kind woman who can also swat her wayward grandson with her purse. She became increasingly frail during the three seasons in which the opera takes place
Several apprentices graced the stage with their presence in smaller roles. Alan Higgs gave a fine interpretation of the self-satisfied mayor with Kathleen Reveille creating the character of his wife---critical and all too ready to humiliate Jenufa. Their daughter Karolka was portrayed by Katherine Beck as the superficial flighty beauty that Števa was going to marry. The three of them just made sense as a family.
Making brief appearances but sounding great were Gina Perregrino, Sylvia D'Eramo, Jana McIntyre, Kaitlyn McMonigle, Danielle Beckvermit, and Benjamin Taylor.
The chorus of Apprentices appeared as townfolk and sounded sensational, as usual. We loved the folk dances choreographed by Maxine Braham.
Maestro Johannes Debus honored Janáček by revealing all the colors of his palette. Our esteem for this composer grows every time we hear his compositions. His writing underscores the action at every turn. We loved the duet between mother and step-daughter which seemed more tuneful than the writing for solo voice. When Kostelnička sends Jenufa to bed, the orchestral writing has the quality of a lullaby. Our favorite passages are almost always the most lyrical ones but last night we found much to love in the forceful and dramatic ones.
Director David Alden similarly honored the work. His direction put a lot of space between the characters which emphasized their loneliness and isolation. There wasn't much love in this family! Fortunately, there wasn't even a whiff of directorial arrogance. Alden wisely allowed the tale to speak for itself.
Charles Edwards' minimalist set design neither added nor detracted but it was stunningly lit by Duane Schuler, who created chiaroscuro effects with dramatic shadows on the walls. We liked the way the boarded up windows exploded when the boards were removed and a storm occurred, lending verisimilitude to the storm within the family.
Jon Morrell's costumes were a propos to a small European village in the mid-20th c.. The folk dancers were colorful and the family drab. The mayor's wife and daughter were more lavishly costumed as befit their lofty position in the local society.
Unfortunately, this was the last performance of the season so unless you have already attended you are out of luck. But there is plenty more artistry to look forward to. We are looking forward to tomorrow's La Bohême and the Sunday Apprentice recital.
(c) meche kroop