Wednesday, October 24, 2007

It’s Fairly Bursting with Adequatulence! Jenufa at LA Opera, 10/13/07

Let me start by warning that this review probably won’t be funny. Jenufa is partly about a murdered baby, there’s nothing funny about that. So, here’s a joke to make up for the lack of humor in the review:

Q: What’s blue and taps on the ice?

A: Jenufa’s baby!

OK, that’s the only dead baby joke I know, so now it’s out of the way, let’s be serious (though not cat macro serious).

I was having a serious think earlier (complete with finger-to-temple pose) about whether or not Jenufa is a great opera or not. At first, I leaned toward “not”, simply because I can’t really remember that much of the music at all, even though some of it was very lovely. It’s also not great in the traditional operatic sense--Jenufa is about peasants, just regular peasants who don’t turn out to be incestuous, half-god, long-lost twins or princes in disguise or Albanians. There aren’t any fancy parties in Jenufa, or battles, or parades with elephants. In fact, LA Opera couldn’t even find a place to wedge in a silly walks or a superfluous tribute to West Side Story. Finally, Jenufa is rarely performed, which must be some reflection on its greatness, right?

But then I said to myself, “Aha, Self, you think you’re so clever! Aren’t some of the greatest novels about peasants? Aren’t most people in the world, in fact, closer to peasants than to royalty? Isn’t that a reflection of Janacek’s desire to get back to the folk roots of Czech music?” Fair enough. On top of that, the characters in Jenufa are quite well-rounded for operatic characters—they all (except maybe Steva, who I wouldn’t consider a main character anyway) change and deepen over the course of the opera. As for the not-often-performed concern, that seems to be more of Czech being a difficult language to master and a lack of sopranos who can handle the role of Jenufa than any statement about its greatness. Aida is performed far more often than, say, MacBeth or even Don Carlo, but is it a better opera? NO.

So why doesn’t Jenufa strike me as being a great opera? Maybe because it isn’t supposed to. That’s part of what makes it both so subversive and so effective. Simple, god-fearing peasant folk aren’t supposed to get knocked up or murder their stepdaughters’ babies. That’s what wicked city people do so the simple country folk can shake their heads and cluck to themselves about what’s to be done with those wicked city people. (The answer is that God will sort them out, apparently. I’ve always liked the idea of God as a high-speed centrifuge.) Jenufa is a quiet opera (not volume-wise, in this case, my bleeding eardrums thank you, Mr. Conlon), more character-driven than plot-driven, and I think its greatness lies in its quietness.

LA Opera for once had the sense to honor the spirit of a work and not try to drama it up with jazz hands and real!life!cars! and pole-dancing. The staging was simple, relying heavily on triangles of wood (I guess to show that Jenufa and her family are the white-trash of the Czech countryside, what with all those redwood decks?), some naturalistic scenery (that was reminiscent of model train landscaping—so.much.preserved.sheet.moss!)... and a fucking huge rock. The costumes were also muted, mostly in neutral shades with a splash of dull blue or faded lilac thrown in. The dull costumes really fit well in an opera where being “looked at” (or not) is so important. The only time I felt slightly annoyed by the costuming was in the second act, when Kostelnicka, having murdered Jenufa’s baby to clear the way for her to marry Laca, forced Laca and Jenufa to join hands. Kostelnicka was all in black, as is the wont of the child murderer, I guess; Laca, who, though he was a stand-up guy in Act II, slashed Jenufa’s face in Act I, was in gray; and Jenufa, who is pretty much a saint aside from her ability to say “no” to the drunken fumblings of her frat-boy-style boyfriend, wore a flowing white nightgown. I could practically feel the elbow of the costume designer digging into my ribs as if to say, “See what I did there?”

But most obvious of all was the rock. Oh, the rock. The huge lump of fake rock around which the entire staging was based. The stone elephant-in-the-room that was the symbol du jour (aka the anvil which was dropped on our heads). Frank Philipp Schlössmann, the set designer, apparently was inspired to create the rock by one line in the opera, in which Jenufa is having a nightmare about being crushed by a huge stone. What Frank Philipp Schlössmann for some reason didn’t foresee is that people might think it’s kind of funny to hear Jenufa crying out about being crushed by a stone when there’s a ginormous hunk of rock in her living room! To make matters worse (or possibly better?), the symbol was somewhat ambiguous, if something so obvious could be said to be ambiguous too. Did the rock symbolize Jenufa and Kostelnicka’s embarrassment about Jenufa’s pregnancy, i.e. it was barely showing in the first act; then dominating their home in the second, after Jenufa had given birth; and finally broken apart in the third act, when Jenufa is about to be married to Laca, her respectability nearly intact. Or did it symbolize the barrier between Jenufa and Laca? Or do Czech people really just have monoliths in their homes? Like George Carlin, I’ll leave symbols to the symbol-minded, but the easiest answer (and therefore, knowing most production designers, the right answer) is that the stone symbolized oppression. It did come in awfully handy for the potential stoning of Jenufa and Kostelnicka, though. If a symbol is going to be ambiguous, the least it can do is double as the means of a painful execution. It certainly worked for the audience anyway; I felt like I was dead from obvious at the end.

Rising above the workhorselike adequisivity [tm Bill McNeal] of the production was the cast, specifically Karita Mattila, who, in spite of what the idiots at KUSC would have you believe, is Finnish, not Czech. I’ve liked Mattila since seeing her in the 1997 Chatêlet recording of Don Carlos; back then, her voice had a glassy, silvery quality, like winter sunlight on a Scandinavian lake. Ten years later, her voice seems slightly darker, with a mezzoish edge to it, but her acting ability is still tremendous, and when it’s necessary, she can still produce gleaming, heavenly sounds that are eerie in their beauty. I don’t know how people can point to Renée “I’ve never heard a note that I couldn’t swing up to” Fleming or Anna “Is this the right note? How about now? Now? Oh, forget it, just look at my tits” Netrebko as the best sopranos in the world when Mattila is performing.

At 47, Mattila can still convincingly portray a teenager by simply altering her posture and her gestures rather than by flopping her limbs around à la Elizabeth Futral or spontaneously breaking into a dorky dance like the woman who played Hansel last season. Jenufa as a character is practically a Mary Sue in that her only faults are the aforementioned thigh muscle slackness around a certain drunken lout, her twu wuv for said lout, and her complete inability to understand the fundamental rule of playground courtship, i.e. if a boy teases you, it means he likes you. Then again, Laca takes his teasing to a symbolic level by poisoning the rosemary plant that he thinks represents Jenufa’s love for his rival Steva, so you can’t really blame her for not getting it.

In the second act, Mattila’s Jenufa was a pathetic creature, made ill by childbirth and broken by Steva’s abandonment of her. The act could’ve degenerated into an inappropriate Lucia-style mad scene (since apparently wearing a nightgown=madness in opera), but instead Mattila made it hauntingly beautiful; her Jenufa was clearly deranged by illness and heartbreak, but at the bottom, she was still a lost young girl. By the end of the opera, though, that young girl is gone, and in her place is a dignified, if troubled, woman who is ready to forgive the woman who murdered her child and love the man who slashed her face (and she never once clutched her scar and said, “It throbs whenever he’s near!” either).

Eva Urbanova’s Kostelnicka wasn’t quite what I expected, but her interpretation was satisfying nonetheless. Kostelnicka, in the brief clips I’ve seen of other productions, seems too flatly evil, the stereotypical wicked stepmother. The libretto proves that this is not the case, that Kostelnicka loves Jenufa in her own odd way and is genuinely trying to protect the girl... while, more importantly, protecting her own reputation. Urbanova’s portrayal made Kostelnicka softer in a way; her love for Jenufa was more clear, and her obviously self-serving motives for killing the baby were, well, less obvious. Part of this was probably due to the warmth in Urbanova’s voice, which is quite different from the more steely-toned Kostelnicka’s I’ve heard before. She never seemed threatening in my opinion, just somewhat strict.

The same is true of Kim Begley’s Laca. I’d thought that Laca would be somewhat of a villain, since he slashes Jenufa’s face and permanently maims her, but Begley’s portrayal was simply that of a man frustrated by his love of a woman who won’t love him back. In the first act, when Laca is at his most malevolent, Begley seemed like a young man who was trying to be bad to make everyone hate him so that he wouldn’t have to care what they thought of him; his teasing of Jenufa and his destruction of her beloved rosemary plant seemed more like the actions of someone who wants to be a badass but is too inherently good to know what badasses do. Begley’s singing was strong throughout, though I can’t say I’m partial to his brand of fine piercing tenor. That type of thing is better put to use for singing songs about penguins.

Jorma Silvasti’s Steva was a drunken frat-boy oaf who just wanted to pound a few brews and bang some hot peasant chicks. His voice was pleasant enough, and though his interpretation of Steva was unremarkable, it made sense, since Steva isn’t a remarkable person. A remarkable douchebag, maybe, with a cheek fetish. Elizabeth Bishop sang well as Jenufa’s grandmother, but I wish she hadn’t been told to stumble around the stage waving her arm in front of her blindly. The rock is the big symbol in this opera, Grandma, not your blindness. It was silly for tense dramatic situations to be going on between Jenufa and Laca downstage, while the grandmother was upstage groping at the air like Jeff Goldblum.

James Conlon conducted the orchestra nicely but very, very loudly. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is such a huge barn that it’s often difficult to hear the singers (though not in this production; Mattila cut through quite nicely) even when the orchestra isn’t playing at full-blast. It seems like yet another symptom of his pompous enjoyment of his own voice, whether it’s spoken, written, or played by an orchestra. He’s undoubtedly a talented and thoughtful artist, but I wish he’d share that talent more with his chosen art and less with his rambling gasbaggery. During the pre-opera lecture, between Conlon and the legendary hot-air-expelliunit Duff Murphy, the air was practically blue with smug.

However, in spite of my reservations about James Conlon, I will admit that I’m feeling quite proud of LA Opera this year. Yes, La Boheme, Tosca, and those tired productions of La Rondine and Don Giovanni will probably wear away some of my goodwill, but I think it’s a step in the right direction to start a season with relatively rare, serious, non-empty-pageantry-filled productions like Fidelio and Jenufa. Sure, Boheme gets asses in seats, but they’re not usually the asses of music-lovers. They’re the asses of people on dates who think that they should wear ballgowns and opera-length gloves to sit in the balcony. They’re not going to subscribe, and they’ll probably only come back for Carmen. By giving us productions with great singers like Mattila, Vogt, Kampe, and Urbanova, it feels like LA Opera is finally realizing that opera is about the music, not avant-garde staging or over-hyped warhorses.

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At November 13, 2008 at 6:30 PM , Blogger sfmike said...

"Jenufa" is a great opera, period, about as close to perfection as the fabulously messy form ever gets, and I envy you getting to hear Mattila and Urbanova singing it.

There were two opera productions I saw live in the mid-1970s at the San Francisco Opera that turned me into a serious opera queen at a young age. One was a "Peter Grimes" with Jon Vickers, and the other was "Jenufa" with the then-57-year-old Elizabeth Soderstrom as the teenager and Sena Jurinac as Kostelnicka singing the paint off the back walls when she went mad in the second act.

Janacek is an acquired taste, but "Jenufa" is just about universally loved by its audiences, unless somebody does something stupid like stick a big boulder in the middle of the stage or go all stupidly postmodern as San Francisco did in 2001 when Patricia Racette sang Jenufa. Having the orchestra play too loud also doesn't help. It's a simple tale with fully rounded characters and some of the most ecstatic music ever written.


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