Highlight of the whole opera season so far this year: Leos Janáček Jenůfa with Jirí Belohlávek, his team from the Czech Philharmonic, and Karita Mattila making her debut as Kostelnicka Buryjovka. British audiences embraced Janáček even during his lifetime and Rafael Kubelik introduced him to Covent Garden. Belohlávek has transformed the whole way in which Czech repertoire is received in this country. This Jenůfa continues Belohlávek's mission to present Czech music affirming its idiomatic individuality, fuelled by intuitive feel for language and culture. From Belohlávek we've had outstanding Smetana, Janáček, Dvorak, Suk and Martinů, so expectations were high, and totally fulfiilled.
Exceptional playing from the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. When they come to London with Belohlávek, they seem to put their souls into performance. The dynamism and verve they offered brought this Jenůfa to vivid life. This performance was intense, yet clear-sighted, giving context to the extreme emotions in the narrative. In the glowing strings and richness of the winds, we could visualize the cornfields around the village, a symbolic metaphor for fertility, and by extension, the continuity of communal life. In her own way, like a good farmer, Kostelnicka protects the resources around her. She wants the best for Jenůfa, and until Števa shows he can run the mill responsibly, the couple can't marry. Unfortunately, fertility plays tricks. When Laca stabs Jenůfa, sharp, violent chords suggest Laca's frustration. He, who cannot inherit or get the girl, can only destroy. Yet the abundance and energy in the music remind us that Nature is infinitely greater than mortal men. Eventually it will triumph.
Significantly, the Second Act takes place in winter, when people are trapped indoors, physically and psychically. Hence the ominous drumbeats and the pale, fragile figures on winds, sharp chords and a dragging undertow, all suggesting the interplay between environment and human drama. Can we hear the river flowing beneath the frozen surface? In this Act the vocal parts take prominence. Jenůfa's music is tender, contrasting with the harshness of her dilemma, and with the whining arrogance in Števa's music. Jaroslav Brezina sang Števa, and Adriana Kohútková sang Jenůfa, the lightness in her voice suggesting how innocent Jenůfa is, despite her past. Aleš Briscein, a Czech Opera regular, whom we've heard many times, gave Laca firm definition, which matters, since the character will prove, in the end, to have the depth to overcome his flaws. When Karita Mattila sang Jenůfa she was good, but Kostelnicka would seem to suit the complexity in her voice even better. The intensity in Mattila's voice shows that, as a sacristan's wife, Kostelnicka understands mortal sin, but the underlying warmth suggests that her love for Jenůfa makes the sacrifice worthwhile.
In Spring, the ice in the river melts: we hear again in the orchestra lively motifs that suggest movement, and the energy of peasant life. Now the choruses really come into full focus: the Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno show how integral natural fluency in language connects to Janáček's idiom The spikiness in the orchestration springs from a language invigorated by consonants and stresses very different to, say, Italian or German. The interplay of individual voices in the final act was masterful: Belohlávek is an excellent conductor for voice. Mattila's voice commands the action, at once tragic and resigned. Perhaps that's the fate which awaits Jenůfa and Laca. The music around them feels heroic, though pointedly not overblown. At the end, we hear the suggestion of bells ringing in the distance. Balance returns, wisdom is gained and the rhythm of Nature restored. People die, life goes on.
Jirí Belohlávek is looking older and more frail, but in many ways that might have enhanced the performance. This was a Jenůfa of very great emotional depth, executed with the kind of authority which comes from genuine sensitivity. We have been truly blessed to experience an interpretation as perceptive as this.
The photo above was taken in Prague last week. Please click on the labels at right to read what else I've written about Belohlávek and the music he serves so well.