Monday 22 June 2015

Janáček - Jenůfa (Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2014 - Blu-ray)

Leoš Janáček - Jenůfa

Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2014

Donald Runnicles, Christof Loy, Michaela Kaune, Jennifer Larmore, Hanna Schwarz, Will Hartmann, Ladislav Elgr, Simon Pauly, Stephen Bronk, Nadine Secunde, Martina Welschenbach, Fionnuala McCarthy, Jana Kurucová, Alexandra Hutton

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

Christof Loy's strength as a director, as he demonstrates here to remarkable effect in the Deutsche Oper's production of Janáček's Jenůfa, is the depth of characterisation he brings to the drama. It's never an imposed reading, but one that can be found in the music itself - no more so than in Janáček's extraordinary score for this work. The setting in Loy's productions might not always conform to the letter of the libretto, but he nonetheless invariably creates a strong environment for the characters to work in and reveal their inner lives. He has a lot to work with in Jenůfa, and with some equally strong musical and singing performances, the full power of Janáček's work is there for all to hear and see.

Jenůfa is a simple story, but it shows how terrible things can happen to anyone, accidentally, through no fault of their own. The consequences of these events and the responsibilities it confers on people can be an unendurable burden, causing great suffering and misery. As a humanist however, Janáček recognises the truth that beauty can flourish even in the worst of situations, and that happiness is always a possibility. This note of hope that he introduces in the almost impossibly beautiful epilogue to Jenůfa is one of the greatest moments in all of opera. Christof Loy shows the truth of this in the Deutsche Oper production, but in order to reach that moment of near-transcendence, he also has to show the full horror of what leads up to it.

What Loy achieves so well in Act I is the sense of urgency and anticipation, the rush of emotions, the implied threats of violence and the conflict of sentiments that are going to set off a tragic series of events. It's a perfect match for the complex, urgent rhythms of Janáček's weaving, rolling and menacing score. There's Jenůfa's fear of her cousin Števa being conscripted into the army, her concern heightened by the fear that she will have to face the anger of the community alone, since she knows she is unmarried and pregnant by him. Her stepmother, Kostelnicka, unaware of her condition, dislikes Števa, her own experience leading her to conclude that he is a drunken good-for-nothing who is unsuitable for marriage. Laca is in love with Jenůfa and, jealous of the concern she shows for Števa, glowers and roars, ready to explode in a fit of jealous rage. Add Števa, stupid, drunk and celebrating, a misplaced knife and a crowd and there will inevitably be trouble, but this is only the beginning of a series of terrible events.

The fact that those actions are going to have grave consequences has however already been indicated right from the outset in a silent scene that shows Kostelnicka brought into an interrogation room. As well as setting her up as a key figure in what is to follow, Loy also shows his ability to look beyond the surface drama into the real heart of what makes Janáček's Jenůfa beat. Understanding Kostelnicka's motivations is important, but it has to be seen in the context, attitudes and morals of the Moravian village community in which the opera is set. That means much more than just using regionally appropriate costumes and backdrops, and for Loy all is needed is plain costumes and an austere white box with sliding panels that open up and close Jenůfa off from the community outside.

That fully creates the occasion for Jenůfa to be a victim of circumstance, her nature and instincts bent to conform to the pressures of society and the community. In terms of laying out the tragedy and the part that Kostelnicka and Laca play in it, Loy not only sets down strong characterisation, but he has two fine singers who are capable of drawing every ounce of character that is inherently there in the drama and the music. Jennifer Larmore in particular is one of the best Kostelnicka's I've ever come across. The scene where she resolves to remove the baby from the picture is chilling and credible, as is how she remains affected and weighted down later as a consequence of her actions. As a singing performance, Larmore's performance is simply outstanding and everything it ought to be, but there's real personality and meaning given to the words and how they manifest in her actions.

Laca's role is a dual one that is rather more complex than the character's simplicity of expression would suggest, but all the contradictions and their implications are fully brought out in Loy's staging and in the performance by Will Hartmann. From one perspective, Laca's accidental scarring of Jenůfa is the single most significant episode that sets off a chain of tragic events, but it is also significant that he also brings about the resolution to them. Loy ensures not only that the actions of the others are fully weighed for the impact they have in what occurs - the villagers, Števa, Kostelnicka and even Jenůfa herself - but that the sense of love, repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation that comes about arises out of the tragedy is even greater. Laca is an important part of this, and Hartmann not only captures that stupid blind, jealous rage of the character, but also his sensitivity and the depths of his feelings for Jenůfa, unconditionally defending her from the community outrage.

There's a danger that Jenůfa could remain a passive figure in the opera with no ability to direct her own fortune, her own passions subject to the actions, whims and projections of others. Her beauty and the purity of her feelings is important however and that comes through intact, if scarred. Michaela Kaune isn't as strong an actor as Larman, but the expression of the essence of Jenůfa is all there in her singing and performance and she clearly puts everything into the role. The same sense of commitment is applied to the characterisation and the performances elsewhere. Even Števa has real personality. He's not just a drunken good-for-nothing or cowardly, but just a boy. He's passionate and clearly loves Jenůfa but he's not grown-up enough to take on the responsibilities of a disfigured wife, a child and making a home, but he is just too weak to stand up to the more forceful female personalities around him.

Similar attention is applied even to secondary roles, but none of Loy's ideas or interpretations exist in isolation or are created out of nothing. All of this is there in the libretto and in the score itself and Donald Runnicles ensures that the precision of the rhythms and their emotional undercurrents all perfectly match the composer's intentions as well as what is happening on the stage. On BD/DVD, Brian Large elects to cut out the audience applause between acts, allowing the force of the drama to playing the drama straight through, and it does make a significant impact, Loy's direction and the acting performances drawing you right in. There are no extra features on the BD50 disc, and the image and audio are reasonably good, but not exceptional. Subtitles (which can only be selected from remote or pop-up while playing) are in English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Korean and Japanese.

Links: Deutsche Oper Berlin