Finely sung revival of Damiano Michieletto’s Jenůfa at Berlin’s Staatsoper Unter den Linden

GermanyGermany Janáček, Jenůfa: Soloists, Staatsopernchor Berlin, Staatskapelle Berlin / Axel Kober (conductor). Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, 7.1.2024. (MB)

Staatsoper Berlin’s Jenůfa (2021 premiere) © Bernd Uhlig

Director – Damiano Michieletto
Revival director – Marcin Łakomicki
Set designs – Paolo Fantin
Costumes – Carlo Teti
Lighting – Alessandro Carletti
Choreography – Thomas Wilhelm
Chorus director – Dani Juris

Grandmother Buryja – Hanna Schwarz
Kostelnička Buryja – Rosie Aldridge
Jenůfa – Vida Miknevičiūtė
Laca Klemeń – Stephan Rügamer
Števa Buryja – Pavol Breslik
Foreman – Grigory Shkarupa
Jano – Victoria Randem
Barena – Adriane Queiroz
Mayor – David Oštrek
Mayor’s Wife – Natalia Sckrycka
Karolka – Maria Kokareva
Herdswoman – Ekaterina Chayka-Rubinstein
Auntie – Rebecka Wallroth
Voices – Olga Vilenskaia, Ben Bloomfield

Damiano Michieletto’s 2021 production of Jenůfa, now receiving its first revival, offers a relatively straightforward retelling of the story without prettifying or sentimentalising. Paolo Fantin’s set designs are stark: semi-transparent, enabling one to see, as in a small rural community, most of what is going on, whilst still maintaining some degree of secrecy. This is a world of violence and poverty, and so it feels, whilst avoiding undue specificity: the level of abstraction is such that the message need not be restricted to any one milieu. That enables a degree of symbolism, perhaps not entirely unlike Olivier Tambosi’s 2001 Covent Garden production (my first, with Bernard Haitink and Karita Mattila no less).

Staatsoper Berlin’s Jenůfa (2021 premiere) © Bernd Uhlig

Ice/water is central to Michieletto’s conception. There is something icy to the walls, but more fundamentally, not unlike Tambosi’s giant boulder, although the other way up, an iceberg descends from the ceiling or sky. It hems in the action to varying extents, according (I assume) to the emotional and broader dramatic temperature. Števa hacks a block of ice to pieces, with violence shocking both in itself and in its childishness, when he has been rejected for conscription. Jenůfa’s child is buried and preserved in the ice too, of course, that discovery provoking the final reckoning and thus enabling the advent of some limited hope and here, literally, sunlight for Jenůfa and Laca. And its melting provides a downpour to punish, symbolically at least, the Kostelnička.

The community, arguably the true villain here – Števa is too weak to deserve such billing – is represented by a few actors, whose shifting shape and role say most of what needs to be said. We can fill in the gaps, bring something to the table ourselves, or simply watch things ‘straight’. Whether the chorus’s placing, largely offstage, was at least in part a response to pandemic restrictions, I do not know, but it works, perhaps paradoxically, to enhance the onstage claustrophobia. The Kostelnička’s abiding religiosity, for better and for worse, comes to the foreground in her little shrine.

Choral singing was good, although coordination with stage and pit sometimes went awry. Indeed, conductor Axel Kober’s coordination of his different forces often left something to be desired, the opening seriously awry, both in that respect and concerning balance of orchestral lines. By and large, Kober gave a good enough impression of the score without penetrating deeper. The Staatskapelle Berlin responded in kind, often more than that. But where the musical action should erupt, forcing itself into our consciousness as a literal matter of life or death, Kober seemed largely content to offer an accompaniment to scenic action: involving enough, but an accompaniment nonetheless. There was little sense, at least from the orchestral direction, of the composer’s speech rhythms determining line and form (surely a crucial argument for preferring Janáček in the original Czech).

The cast did a better job in that respect and others. Vida Miknevičiūtė seems very much to be a soprano of the moment, unable to put a foot (or note) wrong. Her assumption of the title role proved no exception: no mere victim, but a somewhat headstrong young woman, who made choices of her own as well as suffering those of others. Here was to be heard a definite command of the composer’s writing and its dramatic implications, as well as stage presence and collegiality. The same could be said of her colleagues, Rosie Aldridge a compassionate yet broken Kostelnička, Hanna Schwarz still an estimable force as Grandmother Buryja. Pavol Breslik skilfully trod a tightrope as Števa, keenly alert to the character’s contemptible weakness, whilst maintaining allure and vocal security. Stephan Rügamer’s Laca grew in stature as Števa receded from our – and Jenůfa’s – consciousness. Sterling work was done in the smaller roles, Maria Kokareva’s Karolka, Natalia Sckrycka’s Mayor’s Wife, and Victoria Randem’s Jano shining examples for me. There was fine ensemble work here, in which it was rightly difficult to distinguish between singing and acting.

Mark Berry

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