Saturday, 1 February 2014

Gorgeous Janáček Jenůfa La Monnaie Bruxelles

From Brussels La Monnaie/De Munt, a visually stunning Jenůfa, which explores Janáček's  opera from many different angles. Initially, the approach is disorienting, but gradually the wider perspective emerges,.illuminating the drama with great insight. 

Jenůfa was Janáček's breakthrough into opera. While it's not as innovative as the masterworks of the 1920's, it is distinctive.. This new production, directed and designed by Alvis Hermanis,  places the opera firmly in the context of art nouveau and more specifically, the work of the Czech artist  Alfons Mucha. The music unfolds to a stage that resembles a beautiful, gilded frontispiece of a book. A row of dancers line the lower section of the stage, in the way that books were often illustrated at the time. The costumes, by Anna Watkins, are exceptionally beautiful, using elaborate embroidery and needlework techniques. How we can glory in this folkloric richness! But the exaggerated puffed sleeves remind us we are watching a work of the imagination. The singers and dancers move in formal, stylized gestures, resembling theatrical traditions of bygone times.

These wonderful tableaux aren't merely decorative but serve dramatic purpose.  This rural village is ruled by rigid convention.  Hence the background of formality, and the dancers who move like puppets on strings. Their hands are covered with gloves, like Petrushka the marionette. 

Kostelnička (Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet) is the Sacristan's widow, whose duty it is to uphold religious values. But she loves Jenůfa (Sally Matthews) and does not abandon her. She'd prefer that Jenůfa  and Števa (a nicely bouncy Nicky Spence) would marry and legitimize their child. To get ahead in this village, you must conform, like the Mayor and his wife.

Herrnanis sets the Second Act in a more realistic setting, which could be any small,  sad town in Eastern Europe. A tiny TV, a beat-up kitchen, and religious icons on the wall show that  people like these have aspirations. Kostelnička took on a man's job but is ground down by poverty and lack of opportunity. She wants her stepdaughter to have a better life. Significantly Števa refuses to marry Jenůfa because he can see in her stepmother what she, too, might become. He doesn't want to be trapped in a cycle of responsibility and hopelessness. Charbonnet creates a complex Kostelnička, still young enough to dream,  but  withered before her time. It's a powerfully convincing and sympathetic performance. When Charbonnet tries to hide the baby's clothes in the freezer, the pain on her face shows how Kostelnička already knows how little the death will achieve. Eventually, the frozen waters will release the evidence. Kostelnička is doomed.

The private intimacy of the Second Act gives way to public formality. The stylized theatre returns. The music is angular, sharp and turbulent, like the river in full flow.  Charles Workman sings Laca with a clarity that suggests almost Heldentenor idealism, but he hands Jenůfa a bunch of cloth flowers. It's heartbreaking. It is Spring, and Jenůfa longs for the freshness and  freedom Laca once represented. The dancers, in pale grey and white, move to the front of the stage, tossing and turning like waves, illustrating the turmoil Kostelnička tries to suppress. This is a very effective way of creating theatre on multiple planes, without overpowering the singers. The orchestra, conducted by Ludovic Morlot, creates jagged dissonances that reflect the horror  Jenůfa must now face. At last the dancers and choruses fall still, so all attention turns to Charbonnet and Matthews. The Frontispiece set now highlights raw human emotions. Hermanis has drawn the threads of the staging together. As the finale wells up in the orchestra, Laca and Jenůfa embrace in silhouette while the dancers form a  vaguely neo-classical backdrop of movement and life.

Get to this Jenůfa if you can get to La Monnaie.  If not, it's available on line on demand on for a limited period. Highly recommended for Charbonnet and Workman's singing and for Hermanis's sensitive, intelligent direction.  Hermanis's work reminds me of Stefan Herheim, where details are used with purpose and in support of meaning, not merely as decor. At the end, the singers take their bows "in character" with stylized gestures, but big smiles. A witty blend of theatre and reality!

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