Jenufa in Zurich: an Auspicious Start to a New Era

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Janacek: Jenufa: Soloists, Philharmonia Zurich and Chorus of Zurich Opera (chorus master Ernst Raffelsberger), Fabio Luisi (conductor), Zurich Opera, 30.9.12 (JR)


Jenufa: Kristine Opolais
Kostelnicka: Michaela Martens
Grandmother Buryja: Hanna Schwarz
Laca: Christopher Ventris
Steva: Pavol Breslik
Old friend: Cheyne Davidson
Mayor: Pavel Daniluk
His wife: Irene Friedli
Karolka: Ivana Rusko
Maid: Chloe Chavanon
Barena: Herdis Anna Jonasdottir
Jana: Susanne Grosssteiner
Aunt : Silvia Spassova


Production: Zurich Opera
Direction and sets: Dmitri Tcherniakov
Costumes: Elena Zaytseva
Lighting: Gleb Filshtinsky


Zurich’s Artistic Director for over two decades, Alexander Pereira, having now left to manage the Salzburg Festival, his place is now taken by Andreas Homoki, formerly Director of the Komische Oper in Berlin. Daniele Gatti has also moved on as Principal Conductor, to make way for Fabio Luisi who has been contracted for the next five years. A new era has commenced.

Homoki and Luisi have chosen to signal their intentions and style with this new modern production of Jenufa. It’s an auspicious signal.

The young Russian director, Dmitri Tcherniakov, takes the view that setting this opera in rural Moravia, usually with waterwheel and farm buildings, is too folkloristic for modern times and the opera will get its message home more effectively in a contemporary staging. So in place of rusticity, we are presented with a bleak three-storey modern house, painted in a soulless and poisonous green, where the floors move up and down during the production to portray the different levels of suffering. The ground floor living-room is bare but for a large sofa and a G-plan chest of drawers, upstairs is Jenufa’s bedroom (with copious supplies of nappies after the baby is born) and there is an attic which serves an important role late in the opera. The walls have no pictures, not even a crucifix.

Tcherniakov changes the drowning of little baby Steva in the icy waters to having him frozen in snowy blasts from an open window in the attic; that idea is confusing when it is announced later that a baby has been found in a hole in the ice. Otherwise the modern production does help to focus the mind on the problems and suffering of all the main characters, whilst accepting that nowadays the ignominy of a child born out of wedlock is much less severe.

Even though this is one of my favourite operas, I have to remind myself each time of the convoluted and contrived relationships between the various characters; the new-style programme tried to explain all with the help of a family tree but it became the topic of conversation for many in the interval.

Musically, the production is a triumph. Luisi conducts for all he is worth, hard to believe he had asthma as a child; taking on Zurich on top of the Met will certainly keep his lungs in good condition. The orchestra plays at their very best for him and impresses all. Luisi brought out many facets of this marvellous score which I had not heard in previous productions. Problems of balance and dynamics mentioned by First Night critics (I attended the third performance – there are ten in all) had been ironed out: the xylophone was now clearly audible and spine-chilling in effect. Kristine Opolais is a first-rate Jenufa; this season she can be seen and heard in Tosca at Covent Garden and as Mimi in Vienna and Berlin. Not only can she sing lyrically and when required forcefully, but act: she went from bubbly fun-loving party-girl in Act I through depression in Act II to utterly tortured soul in Act III.

Hanna Schwarz was quite a catch as the grandmother: she is always the centre of attention when on stage, depicting at the beginning a grand lady of leisure in a leopard-spot dressing gown and face mask, and in the end, shuffling into her granny flat and the attic in her pink slippers, reduced to a state of senile dementia; Tcherniakov has her discover and kick the cot with its dead infant. Micaela Martens as the Kostelnicka is taken over by the vigour of Janacek’s score and at times she even garners our sympathy: Jenufa however pushes her roughly away at the end to signify her disgust at her terrible deed. Tcherniakov also has Jenufa push out Laca at the end, less roughly, so there is no happy end in this production, Jenufa has never loved Laca and never will. Her facial scar is larger and more disfiguring in this production: and references to her delicate cheeks before the “accident” more telling. Laca goes to fetch the knife and in this production, the scarring seems less of an accident: as Laca explains at the end, he wanted to disfigure her to try to make her love him rather than Steva.

The male roles are all ably filled, especially Christopher Ventris as Laca; Pavol Breslik’s tenor was firm even if one did rather notice Steva for his striking yellow trainers and acrobatics.

Anyone within striking distance of Zurich and lovers of Janacek’s operas elsewhere should try to make their way here for this fine and thought-provoking production.

John Rhodes