Oksana Dyka leads inspired cast in powerful performance of Janáček’s “Jenůfa”
Leoš Janáček’s Jenůfa opened Friday night at the Metropolitan Opera for a run of just six performances. Yet the wrenching potency of this opening night left a lasting resonance far beyond the production’s modest place on this season’s schedule.
The opera has had a long but intermittent history at the Met. Jenůfa debuted in 1924 in German, then disappeared until 1974, when it was produced in an English translation. The Czech original did not appear until 1992, and the current revival production, conducted by David Roberston, dates from 2003, the only intervening performances coming almost ten years ago.
Jenůfa is an ensemble piece that examines the claustrophobic relationships surrounding Jenufa, and each principal character is vital to the opera’s success.
As the opera begins, the title character (sung by soprano Oksana Dykal) is desperately in love with, her cousin, the irresponsible Steva (tenor Joseph Kaiser), whose child she carries in secret. He is willing to enjoy Jenůfa’s company but reluctant to marry her. Steva’s half-brother Laca (tenor Daniel Brenna) loves Jenufa and is consumed with jealousy both over her and how his step-grandmother, Buryja (mezzo Hanna Schwarz), favors Steva. Presiding over the young people, and the self-appointed voice of what passes for moral wisdom and propriety in this small Moravian village is Kostelnicka, Jenůfa’s stepmother (soprano Karita Matilla).
The tale’s ensuing tragedies all happen to Jenůfa, in part because of her agency, but mostly visited upon her by Steva, Laca, and her step-mother. Laca, unable to possess her, disfigures her. Jenufa gives birth in secret. Steva refuses to marry her, due to the damage to her face. Then Kostelnicka murders the baby, telling Jenufa the boy died in his sleep.
What elevates these horrific acts beyond merely lurid plot complications is the psychological realism and humanity that Janacek brought to every note. He was a superb and sympathetic opera composer, with tremendous empathy toward his characters, from the best to the worst.
That comes through as an inherent warmth in the music. The composer also had the unique advantage of working with the Czech language, where the emphasis and consonants add a rhythmic vitality and conversational urgency to every line. None of the singers quite captured this, with pronunciation tending toward the mushy side throughout.
But the score for Jenůfa goes beyond mere technical detail, it is a magnificent narrative of Jenufa’s horrible travails, and an expression of her endurance, and the strength to carve out something good in her life. Janacek, who spent so many years in unrequited love with one unattainable young woman after another, showed his love for Jenůfa in the music.
A case in point is Laca, who like so many young men seeks to destroy the thing he cannot have—the opera does a beautiful job of showing his attack on her as rising out of a complex mix of passion, anger, immaturity, and the thrill of pushing aggressive play up to and past the line of sin. But unlike so many of those, he comes to feel shame, and his love for Jenůfa transforms into a mature care and devotion. He does not seek forgiveness, knows he can never make amends entirely, but wants to atone and provide something good in Jenůfa’s life. In the second act, Kostelnicka tries to force Jenůfa to hold Laca’s hand, a false show of affection. The final image in this production is the two, on the verge of marriage, reaching spontaneously for each others’ hand, an intense and moving distillation of the score.
Along with pronunciation issues, there was some initial unevenness in the stage performances. Dyka and Brenna were unfocused and jumpy in the first act, as if they were in search of their character’s cores. Both also sounded a bit tight, Dyka’s voice vanishing in the lower range, Brenna pushing a bit, producing a thin sound.
The jitters, if that’s what they were, passed, their voices easing into the roles. From the second act on the two were fully realized as singing characters. Their combined forces exuded an emotional power and artistic dignity—the feeling that they were in the midst of something important that required no exaggeration—matching the power of the orchestral playing. As the narrative made their characters deeper and more complex, so did their singing open up and expand in both sonic dimensions and in emotional richness.
Dyka in particular captured this in her voice, which gradually shaded darker and darker with each passing minute. In the final two scenes, paired first with Mattila then with Brenna, she sang with a gorgeous, rich sound, and an enormous projection of feeling.
Mattila (who has played Jenůfa and most of the other Janáček heroines in her career), and Kaiser were excellent from the very beginning. Kaiser was Steva in the flesh, charming to men (save for Laca) and women alike, alternately confident, caddish, and callow. Matilla, taking on the mezzo role of Kostelnicka, was centered from her first note, her voice bearing the bitter certitude the character brings to her every, tragic, decision. Schwarz sang Buryja, her voice still full, with a combination of dignity, tenderness, and aggravation.
Under Robertson’s baton, the orchestra took its place as a character first among equals. The playing was lustrous, and Robertson’s judgment was ideal—he never once indulged in pushing the music to a nervous edge, an easy path with this score. Instead, he helped reveal the inner strength through the large-scale shape of the piece; every phrase, rise and fall in dynamics, and shift in texture was both muscular and polished. The cumulative effect was that of witnessing the building of an inspiring monolith.
Olivier Tambosi’s scenic design was incisive in the first and third acts, with two massive walls pointing toward a vanishing point, which is the expansive outside world of wheat fields, hills, and sunshine. The obvious and pretentious mystery of the second act setting, in which the interior of Kostelnicka’s house is primarily occupied by a large rock, vanished before mesmerizing singing from Mattila and Dyka. This is a through-composed opera, driven by constant vocal interaction between the characters, but in Act II, both women have the opportunity to express their hopes and fears, and the marvelous performances set the emotional trap into which all fell at the finale.
There are only five more chances to experience this powerhouse music drama, Robertson’s excellent leadership, and the emotionally involving singing of Oksana Dyka.
Jenůfa continues through November 17. metopera.org