TRANSGRESSION AND FORGIVENESS: A POWERFUL JENŮFA FROM PACIFIC OPERA VICTORIA
Leoš Janáček, JENŮFA, Leoš Janáček (libretto, after the play Její pastorkyňa – ‘Her Stepdaughter’ - by Gabriela Preissová). Lara Ciekiewicz (Jenůfa), Emilia Boteva (the Kostelnička), Colin Judson (Laca), Lynne McMurtry (Grandmother Buryja), John Lindsey (Števa), Dion Mazerolle (The Mayor), Maria Soulis (The Mayor’s Wife), Andrea Hill (Karolka), Peter McGillivray (Stárek), Rebecca Genge (Jano). Victoria Symphony Orchestra, Timothy Vernon, conductor, Pacific Opera Victoria Chorus, Giuseppe Pietraroia, Chorus Master, Atom Egoyan, director. Royal Theatre Victoria, October 20, 2017.
Leoš Janáček enjoys a reputation as one of the greatest opera composers of the 20th century—ironic, when you consider that for many years he was seen as an eccentric and a hick, quite out of the mainstream. In his own day he received no real recognition until he was in his sixties, when Jenůfa was shown in Prague in 1916, twelve years after its premiere in Brno. Even so, it was tampered with, the orchestration watered down to make the music palatable—and this to an audience that was one of the most sophisticated in Europe! No surprise; they had heard nothing like him before. His music occupies a weird and wonderful soundscape, with its short jagged melodies interspersed with longer, intensely lyrical ones, its idiosyncratic vocal writing, its use of the old Moravian modalities, its lightning switches between minor and major, its pungent orchestration. It is highly emotional music, viscerally exciting, sometimes heartbreaking, as are the stories—including Jenůfa.
Jenůfa is a tale of village life—so beloved of 19th-century nationalist composers (Czechoslovakia became a nation in 1918)—but not of the usual comic variety, showing the folk as delightful embodiments of the national ethos. No, Jenůfa is dark, revealing the brutal underbelly of village life, its repressive mores and cruel punishments, its curious substratum of religiosity, a force both oppressive and consolatory. It is a story of strong, almost pathological personalities, featuring mutilation and infanticide. It tells of Jenůfa’s loss of opportunity for a normal life within the community, with a secret birth out of wedlock, her abandonment by her lover, her stepmother’s murder of the baby to avoid shame (trading her immortal soul for respectability), the older woman’s psychological disintegration through guilt, and the devastation to Jenůfa, the mother. A bleak story, relieved by the growing recognition that, in such a world, the only answers are forgiveness and the transformative power of love. It’s an emotional ride propelled by music of enormous power.
Pacific Opera Victoria (in a co-production with Opéra de Montréal) presented us with a gripping rendition of the tale. The stage direction of Atom Egoyan was direct and to the point, letting the story tell itself, as was the minimalist set of Debra Hanson, with a damaged mill wheel (?) facing us at the back of the stage, pivoting to show its stone heft at the end of Act 2 (echoing the references in the story) and an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary toward the end of Act 3, giving visual reinforcement to the idea of forgiveness as a Christian virtue. Costumes were modern-day, rather a theatrical cliché these days, and mixing anomalously with the traditional wedding garb of Act 3.
The orchestra under Timothy Vernon displayed fine articulation of this complex score, providing clarity as well as emotional charge. It was kind to the singers, allowing them to be heard at all times. The whole performance, orchestra and vocals, emphasized the lyrical, making for a poignant portrayal of suffering and hope
The cast was generally excellent, with Lara Ciekiewicz making an outstanding Jenůfa. Her singing was flawless, clear, well enunciated, strongly projected, and characterful—and her acting was strong. Her Act 2 prayer to the Virgin was beautifully sung, with an aching legato that brought out the poignant lyricism of the prayer. The same fine quality could be found in her devastated response to her foster mother’s news of the death of her infant son. She also shone in the great scene that ends the opera, with Jenůfa forgiving her stepmother and recognizing Laca’s love and spiritual growth. Emilia Boteva as the Kostelnička was also first rate, with a voice strong enough to carry her highly declamatory vocal line, yet also capable of fine lyricism when required, as in her Act 2 pleading with Števa to assume responsibility for Jenůfa. Her performance of her decision to kill Jenůfa’s baby was harrowing, with lyricism alternating with declamation as she screwed herself up for the terrible deed.
Colin Judson’s Laca was well sung and compellingly portrayed. Laca is a strange character, someone who in our day would be called a stalker, but who we’re to believe is devoted and reliable, despite his rough edges. I find his mutilation of Jenůfa hard to forgive, but then I am not the saint that she is. Mr. Judson conveyed well Laca’s sense of grievance—over inheritance and thwarted love—the frustration and anger that leads to his explosion into violence, and his development into empathy and patience—and finally a heroic resolve to stand by the woman he loves, despite the bleak prospect lying ahead for them both. With his strong, well-modulated tenor, he gave us a persuasive characterization of this dark but redeemable individual.
John Lindsey as Števa was convincing, suitably superficial—swaggering, drunken, despicably weak. It’s a hard role to play but, with his easy good looks and mellifluous voice, Mr. Lindsey gave us a convincing characterization. On the other hand, Andrea Hill as Karolka, while conveying well her snobbish contempt of the peasants around her and singing securely, proved over the top, turning her character into a caricature. Lynne McMurtry as the Grandmother played and sang with quiet dignity. Of the secondary characters I was most impressed by Peter McGillivray as Stárek, singing with a robust baritone and playing his role with a natural flair.
All told, Pacific Opera offered a powerful and satisfying performance of one of the great operas of the 20th century, with its stunning music and desolate but darkly hopeful tale of transgression and forgiveness, and love based in moral strength and religious confidence.
© Harvey de Roo 2017