Magnificently Depressing Jenufa

 SwitzerlandSwitzerland Janacek: Jenufa: Soloists, Philharmonia Zurich and Chorus of Zurich Opera (chorus master Ernst Raffelsberger), Patrick Lange (conductor), Zurich Opera, 22.11.13 (JR)


Jenufa, Kristine Opolais
Kostelnicka, Michaela Martens
Grandmother Buryja,  Hanna Schwarz
Laca, Christopher Ventris
Steva, Pavel Cernok
Old friend, Cheyne Davidson
Mayor, Pavel Daniluk
His wife, Irene Friedli
Karolka, Ivana Rusko
Maid, Alexandra Tarcineru
Barena, Hannah Bradbury
Jane, Susanne Grosssteiner
Aunt, Martha Villegas[/table]

Direction and sets, Dmitri Tcherniakov
Costumes, Elena Zaytseva
Lighting, Gleb Filshtinsky
Chorusmaster, Ernst Raffelsberger


This production by young Russian director, Dmitri Tcherniakov, was such a huge success when it opened the season last year that Zurich Opera have, thankfully, brought it back this year, with two major changes. Conductor Patrick Lange takes over in the pit from Music Director Fabio Luisi and Pavel Cernok (replacing Pavol Breslik) is the new Steva. Otherwise, more or less, the cast is unchanged.

Set not in rural Moravia, but in a bleak contemporary three-storey house, the attention focuses on the emotional upheavals of the main protagonists. The production, in my view, only falters at the point when the infant is killed: in this production it appears to freeze to death in its cot in the attic, whilst the libretto refers to it being found in a frozen stream, the stepmother returns through the French windows of the lounge after committing the deed.

Musically, the production remains a triumph. The new man in the pit is German conductor Patrick Lange, still in his early thirties. Assistant to Claudio Abbado in Berlin and Lucerne, he took Glyndebourne Touring Opera round England in 2009 and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields on a tour of Germany in 2011. He conducted the Covent Garden revival of La Traviata in 2011 and was highly praised. Now he appears to divide his time principally between Berlin’s Komische Oper, Vienna’s Staatsoper and Zurich. There were some lapses in balance and ensemble at the start of Act I, but gradually the performance began to gel. Lange highlighted some unusual facets of this score that I had not heard from other conductors. The Philharmonia Zurich played well, particularly the solo violin.  However I did have a few quibbles: the threatening xylophone and timpani were far too tentative for my liking. The set rises and falls impressively to reveal the different storeys of the house, and the hydraulics mean the singers have to be positioned halfway back on the stage. When they sat sideways on the lounge sofa in Act 1, they lacked vocal projection. This was less of a problem in the later Acts when the singers tended to stand and face forward.

Kristine Opolais remains an absolutely first-rate Jenufa. Singing magnificently, she wholly enters the role of the tortured young girl.

Hanna Schwarz continues to impress as the grandmother, depicting at the beginning a lady of leisure donning a mudpack, and in the end, shuffling intaround the house reduced to a state of dementia. In her forceful rendering of the aria “Every couple has to overcome obstacles” I was reminded of how wonderful a Fricka she used to be.  Micaela Martens as the Kostelnicka sings of her anguish most powerfully and almost manages to gain sympathy for her evil act: on realising at the very last scene of the opera that her stepmother has killed her infant, Jenufa first caresses her but then pushes her to the floor to signify her utter disgust.

Christopher Ventris, a seasoned Wagnerian and Grimes, was most impressive as Laca.   Pavol Breslik was not an ideal Steva at the première; his replacement Pavel Cernok, hailing from Brno, and trained at the Janacek Academy there, appeared on paper to have all the right credentials but his voice lacked timbre. His acting impressed more than his singing.

The minor parts were all well sung. I was particularly taken by Susanne Grosssteiner as Jana and Ivana Rusko as Karolka, who in a ruched purple cocktail dress also easily won the prize for best costume.

John Rhodes

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