Janáček Jenůfa: Soloists, Finnish National Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Jakob Hrůša (conductor). Finnish National Opera, Helsinki, 24.1.2014 (Premiere)(GF)
Jenufa, Kostelnička’s foster daughter – Karita Mattila
Laca Klemeň – Jorma Silvasti
Števa Buryja – Jyrki Anttila
Kostelnička Buryjovka, the churchwarden’s widow – Päivi Nisula
Grandmother Buryjovka – Sari Nordqvist
Foreman – Juha Kotilainen
Mayor – Juha Eskelinen
Mayor’s wife – Ritva-Liisa Korhonen
Karolka – Hanna Rantala
Jano, herder – Mia Heikkinen
Barena – Tove Åman
Maid – Ann-Marie Heino
Old woman – Daphne Bečka
1st voice – Minna Kesäläinen
2nd voice – Marko Puustinen
Director: Olivier Tambosi,
Set and Costume Designer: Frank Philipp Schlöβmann
Lighting Designer: Mariella von Vequel Westernach
Karita Mattila has been the world’s leading Janáček soprano for quite some time now and it was good to hear – and see – her in one of her signature roles after the tremendously successful The Makropulos Affair a year and a half ago with the same production team. They also teamed up with Mattila at Covent Garden more than ten years ago in a production of Jenůfa that I saw but that particular evening another soprano had replaced Mattila. I very well recognised the sets from that occasion. This new production was originally conceived for Staatsoper Hamburg.
The stage picture is beautiful, somewhat stylised, and the action takes place in triangular-shaped spaces with high walls but at the back there is a narrow opening through which one is in perpetual contact with nature. And nature is important in this rural setting. On the surface the characters may seem one-dimensional with primitive feelings but Tambosi has chiselled out deeply human individuals, warts and all, that one can believe in. No one is entirely white, no one is entirely black. Laca is initially a hothead but there is warmth and consideration in him too. Števa is more difficult to feel sympathy for, though he has moments of humanity too, but in the last resort he is a coward. I have no idea about how the casting process was carried through but most of the actors are very convincing in their roles, visually as well as vocally. I was a little disappointed when the Mayor appeared in the last act, having strong memories of Kim Borg in the role at the Stockholm Royal Opera more than forty years ago, tall, imposing and black-voiced. Juha Eskelinen was very ordinary in comparison. Sari Nordqvist was a touching Grandmother Buryjovka but occasionally her movements revealed that she was not even half the age of her character. These are however only marginal observations. One could enjoy Juha Kotilainen’s excellent Foreman in the first act and Hanna Rantala’s sprightly Karolka in the last act.
A few words about the chorus and orchestra who both have been in extremely fine fettle for many years now. This premiere was no exception. Under the young Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša, a former pupil of Jiří Bĕlohlávek, there was idiomatic music-making on a high technical level.
Over to the leading soloists. Jorma Silvasti, who sang Laca also at Covent Garden all those years ago, was the very epitome of a working class hero, hot-tempered, brutal but in the end a very likeable person with a big heart. The slimy Števa, in London sung by Jerry Hadley a little past his best vocally, was well portrayed by Jyrki Anttila. Both tenors were in superb vocal shape.
But the heaviest burden fell on Kosteknička and Jenůfa, two of the most deep-probing roles in all opera. And they were superbly handled. Päivi Nisula, who started as a mezzo-soprano in the 1990s, later changed to soprano and I heard her as both Desdemona in Otello and Madeleine in Andrea Chenier. Her Kostelnička was formidable. What intensity, what involvement and what action. She moved the whole audience to tears in the last act and the ovations after the performance were ear-splitting. Just as ear-splitting were the ovations for Karita Mattila. She is one of the greatest singing-actors in the world and here her expressivity – and the sheer beauty of her singing – combined to make this the most many-faceted Jenůfa one can imagine. I still remember Elisabeth Söderström’s reading in Stockholm 1972 and thought it unrivalled, but I have to revise my opinion and place the two side by side. For readers who, rightly, feel tempted to book a journey to Helsinki and the FNO I have bad news. All the remaining performances are sold out! I am sure this production will be reprised within a year or two – but without Karita Mattila. She has declared that this was to be her last Jenůfa. Next time she will be Kostelnička instead – and that is also something to look forward to.