Leoš Janáček - Jenůfa
La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels - 2014
Ludovic Morlot, Alvis Hermanis, Sally Matthews, Charles Workman, Nicky Spence, Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet, Carole Wilson, Ivan Ludlow, Alexander Vassiliev, Mireille Capelle, Hendrickje Van Kerckhove, Beata Morawska, Chloé Briot, Nathalie Van de Voorde, Marta Beretta
Culturebox, Medici.tv, La Monnaie Internet Streaming - January 2014
Jenůfa is a challenging opera to perform and stage. Musically, despite its seemingly simple rhythmic pulsations, this early 20th century opera by Janáček bridges Romanticism and Modernism, but it has the additional complication of being very much related to Moravian folk music and to the particular rhythms of spoken language that are an important aspect of Janáček's style. An indication of the challenges of performing the work is how varied interpretations of Janáček's musical scoring can be in attempting to find that precise rhythm in music and language. It doesn't help, I find, that Sir Charles Mackerras' near-definitive editions and recordings of many of Janáček's operas set an incredibly high standard for anyone else to match.
In terms of the storyline, Jenůfa also appears to be a simple folktale, a morality tale of village life, the melodrama of a local beauty who scandalously falls pregnant and is spurned by her lover, only to have her face disfigured by a jealous admirer. Not only that, but in an attempt to resolve the difficulties and the shame that lie upon the family and in an attempt to open a way to a marriage for Jenůfa, her frantic stepmother, Kostelnička, drowns the new-born baby in a frozen river. The storyline revolves around these few highly intense situations in a way that not only makes it difficult to dramatise, but to find a suitable tone that is not overwhelmingly bleak and despairing.
On the contrary, based on the lush beauty of the musical score, the director and conductor actually have to find a way to make the work beautiful and achieve a conclusion that is heart-warming and tender. Jenůfa is not a work then that benefits from a naturalistic interpretation or from any kind of harsh social realism, but at the same time it has to emphasise or make real the human qualities that arise out of their efforts to overcome the bleakness of the situation. That's no small challenge. Relatively new to opera, the Latvian theatre director Alvis Hermanis however takes an unusual approach to the stage presentation of this remarkable work for La Monnaie in Brussels. It's not quite perfect, but it's every bit as impressive and innovative as any staging of this unique and remarkable work should be.
Drawing heavily from the turn of the century Art Nouveau movement, with imagery taken directly from the works of the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, Hermanis' production for La Monnaie is therefore a highly stylised one that is far from naturalistic. At the same time however it is authentic in terms of the roots of the work in Moravian folktale and culture, while also being entirely sympathetic to the tone adopted towards the story by Janáček in his stunningly beautiful and evocative musical scoring. There are no conventional props or sets, yet the location, the background of the characters and their nature is represented brilliantly in the puffy-sleeved, embroidered and garlanded traditional costumes as well as in the elaborate decorative designs of the set.
That goes as far as using a line of dancers almost as a decorative border and background for the drama, positioned behind the singers throughout Act I and III. The upper level is used for projections of swirling and scrolling Art Nouveau patterns with Alphonse Mucha images that reflect the Czech Moravian setting and the characters, opening up at times to present the chorus who contribute to the background dramatic action and reaction. The singers act out the drama in stylised movements and dance-like gestures, never naturalistic but expressive nonetheless, retaining the folk quality of the story even though it adapts the body-language of formalised Oriental dance theatre.
Visually, it's a sumptuous display. Words alone can't do it justice. It's simply ravishingly and almost heart-breakingly beautiful, which is something you could say also about Janáček's score, so it's clearly wholly appropriate and in tune with the musical account of the work. That's evident in the way that Act II is treated entirely differently from the formalised tableaux of the opening and closing acts. Act II presents the reality of the situation in a much more socially realistic way, depicting a poor cottage or a run-down apartment in a housing block from a 1960s' Czech New Wave film, with peeling paint, a stove, a bed and religious pictures and icons on the walls. The music written by Janáček bears out this division of styles between ritualised folktale and the human reality, so close attention has clearly been paid to the score.
The production however doesn't perhaps always come to life the way it should or respond entirely to those deeply tragic moments and emotional undercurrents, but it's hard to imagine how any staging could. Most productions of Jenůfa (and they are rare enough) tend to follow the minimalist principle of the drama being enacted by just a few characters, but this one, while it might appear to be overly busy, at least fills the stage with context. The sense of community is of vital importance in Jenůfa, and that's evident in all the cultural and costume iconography, on a stage that has dancers in constant motion, and that is enacted often before the watchful, judgemental eyes of that small community looking down from those upper levels.
Ideally, you'd like to have native Czech singers who are capable of reproducing the speech rhythms that are so vital a component of the opera. It's rare however that anyone is able to cast in this way for the roles of Jenůfa and Kostelnička, but outside of Elisabeth Söderström and Eva Randová from the definitive Charles Mackerras recording in the 1980s, this Monnaie production is as good as I've heard with Sally Matthews and Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet in those roles. Charbonnet feels the strain of the high pitch towards the end of the opera, but she has good presence and dramatic force in her delivery. Sally Matthew's dramatic performance is a little bit blank in the context of the stylised delivery, but she's stronger in Act II's realism and her singing performance is solid and consistent throughout. Nicky Spence is a fine Števa, but it's Charles Workman who stands out here, his gorgeous tone and impassioned delivery in Act III making that difficult acceptance of Laca's dreadful actions and his redemption meaningful and truly heart-warming.