JenufaLeoš Janáček - Jenůfa

Teatro Real, Madrid, 2009 | Ivor Bolton, Stéphane Braunschweig, Amanda Roocroft, Miroslav Dvorský, Nikolai Schukoff, Deborah Polaski, Mette Ejsing, Marta Ubieta, Károly Szemerédy, Miguel Sola, Marta Mathéu, María José Suárez | Opus Arte

One of the composer’s earliest works, from 1904, Janáček’s Jenůfa is a wonderful piece of work with a melodramatic but gritty story that has its roots in realism and traditional popular folklore, and it has music to match with a lush sweep of Wagnerian Romanticism, the punch of Slavic dance arrangements and a modern Strauss-like sensibility that ties the nature of the characters and their actions to identifiable but complex modern musical and speech tone patterns developed by Janácek. Unfortunately, this particular performance, recorded at the Teatro Real de Madrid in 2009, is for the most part not the most impressive means of experiencing one of the greatest operas of the early twentieth century.

It’s difficult from this production to grasp any sense of time, location or community sensibility that is so important in identifying the nature of Jenůfa’s dilemma. Jenůfa is in love with Števa and engaged to be married to him, despite his half-brother Laca being more devoted to the young woman, and perhaps a better match. When her stepmother Kostelnička publically delays the marriage until Števa gets his act together, she is unaware that Jenůfa is pregnant. The secret birth of a baby outside wedlock makes the marriage to Števa and the fate of Jenůfa more complicated to arrange, as does the scar on the young woman’s face accidentally left there by the jealous Laca, and despair over the turn of events drives Kostelnička to take matters into her own hands.

Although it does seem to improve considerably by the time we reach the powerful and climactic third act, the whole sense of fluidity and rhythm of the work and the all-important speech tones seem to be lost in the uneven tempo of Ivor Bolton’s conducting. It seems to limp from one scene to the next somewhat disjointedly, and it’s not until quite late in the performance that the conductor manages to bring the precision and dramatic tone required out of the orchestra. The staging by Stéphane Braunschweig is also inadequate and it’s not so much that the set is minimalist – each scene consisting of bare walls and one significant object in a spotlight to indicate location – as that there is little here to support mood or the dramatic action. Up until the final act, it’s a fairly anonymous staging, dark, with stark lighting on the characters, that doesn’t have the requisite impact and fails to draw the viewer into what is very much a story related to the community, as well as an interior journey.

The singing is good in all the principal roles, if not outstanding. There’s nothing here, for example, to create the kind of impression or investment in the roles that Elisabeth Söderström and Eva Randová achieve in their incredibly passionate and chilling renditions of Jenůfa and Kostelnička for the classic Charles Mackerras recording of this opera (although it is perhaps unfair to expect any live performance to match this). Amanda Roocroft however is a fine Jenůfa and Deborah Polaski an excellent Kostelnička, both of them growing into the roles (or perhaps it just took me a while to acclimatise to them), gathering intensity as the opera reaches the third act. Nikolai Schukoff and Miroslav Dvorský as rival half-brothers Števa and Laca, also give fine performances. None of them however are helped by the inadequacy of the staging or by the mediocre playing of the orchestra.

Something close to the real impact of the work is achieved by the time we get to the remarkably beautiful and poignant duet at the conclusion of the opera, but otherwise, this production succeeds only as far as making Jenůfa sound like an ordinary opera, when it’s really a work that has so much more to offer and deserves a lot better than this in terms of staging and performance. It’s not helped at all by the inadequate video transfer on the Blu-ray. The extremely dark stage (as is often the case in Teatro Real productions in my experience) scarcely looks better than standard-definition, with little detail and a highly contrasted image that exhibits lighting fluctuation and exposure variations. The image is somewhat juddery, and this isn’t helped by jerky camera work. The disc contains only a Cast and Synopsis, but there is a more detailed examination of how the music works alongside the drama in the accompanying booklet.