24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
I got this blu-ray a few weeks ago from the UK, since I couldn't wait to watch it. Ever since I first saw it as a child, I love this opera, and while my favorite Janacek opera is typically the one I have seen most recently, Jenufa has always been special to me... This new recording from the Teatro Real Madrid is an excellent addition to the Janacek catalog. While the production isn't as intriguing as Robert Carsen's Katia Kabanova from the same theater, it more than gets the job done, and it gives three excellent singers a chance to shine: Amanda Roocroft as Jenufa, Deborah Polaski as Kostelnicka, and Miroslav Dvorsky as Laca. Of course, probably to no ones surprise, Polaski pretty much steals the show. She is not your usual burnt-out soprano using Kostelnicka to prolong a career that has seen better days. She is still at the top of her game, and her Kostelnicka is not a monster, but rather a complex woman who on the surface is stern and draconic, but also battered by life, making the wrong decisions under pressure. For once, it seems believable that Jenufa would (sort of) forgive her at the end. Roocroft is a fine Jenufa. Some people will probably complain that she is too old to play what is supposed to be a young girl, but I don't see this as a problem, and before the age of opera on dvd, nobody would have noticed anyway. Her scenes with Polaski in the second act are heart-breaking. With two singers like this in the main roles, one would almost expect that the male leads don't have much of a chance, but Dvorsky does well in the somewhat unthankful role of Laca. All three of them get enthusiastic cheers at the curtain calls, but Polaski receives the lion's share. Polaski and Roocroft hug each other for what seems like almost half a minute during curtain calls - I thought this was a nice gesture, after the tension of Act 3.
The production by Stephane Braunschweig is mostly dark, with a few large walls as the set. There is not much on stage - a small bed with Jenufa's child in Act 2, a few benches in Act 3. A lot is done with light - the walls of Kostelnicka's house in Act 2 suddenly open up to let in some icy light just before she takes the child and leaves the house. At a few places, one wishes the director had tried a little bit harder. The scenes with the choir could use more care, and the end of Act 1 looses some of its impact because singers don't seem to know where to go or where to look... On the plus side, the minimalist production isn't very distracting either, and has no annoying "gags." Costumes are traditional and simple. It appears to play in the past, but it could actually play in a traditional rural setting marked by poverty at any time, anywhere - as it should. Twice, at the beginning of Act 1 and the end of Act 2, a huge mill wheel comes out of the floor, and while it is an altogether nice effect, I wish somebody had put some grease on the parts so it would move more smoothly...
Another recent video recording of Jenufa I can compare to is the production from Barcelona with Stemme and Marton. I like that production and also think that Stemme and Marton are excellent, but in my opinion, this recording from Madrid is superior. The Barcelona production suffers from sub-par conducting and the very questionable choice of a "beefed-up" orchestration of the final scene. The Madrid production is superbly conducted by Ivor Bolton, and that makes all the difference. He uses the Mackerras (Brno) edition of the score, which restores the original Janacek orchestration. Janacek's orchestration is more difficult to pull off (which was of course the reason for the re-orchestration in the first place), but if it is played as well as here, with Bolton leading the Orchestra of the Teatro Real, the performance (especially of the final scene) lacks nothing in brilliance and tension. Bolton is a bit of a mystery to me. The camera shows him a few times, and he comes across as somewhat histrionic. It looks like his movements might be hard to follow. But the results are outstanding, just as in his recent recording of Haendel's Theodora from Salzburg.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
... or the first great opera of the 20th? Leos Janacek's "Jenufa" has a fair claim to both titles, the one indisputable quality being its greatness. It's Janacek's most passionate and dramatic opera, with an integration of vocal and orchestral music into a symphonic wholeness that exposes the Czech composer's theoretical indebtedness to Wagner. That, and its pious/perfunctory allusions to Christian salvation, are its 19th C attributes. The bold sexual explicitness of its libretto, written by the composer himself, and the even bolder chromaticisms and dissonances of its orchestration, are its claims to modernism. Janacek composed "Jenufa" in bits and pieces throughout the 1890s, but the work's originality was too strange for the opera company of Prague, which rejected it. It was premiered in Brno in 1904, and only later in Prague and Vienna, in a version trimmed and re-orchestrated by the music director Karel Kovaroivich. Thereafter, like all of Janacek's operas, it suffered neglect for decades. Proper recognition of Leos Janacek's stature has been tardy, but today five of his operas are staged regularly and triumphantly on every major operatic stage of Europe and North America: Jenufa, Katia Kabaonova (1921), The Cunning Little Vixen (1924), The Makropoulos Case (1926), and The House of the Dead (1927). Excellent performances of all five are available at last on DVD.
Jenufa is a tale of seduction, jealousy, abandonment, and infanticide, set in a quiet country village in Moravia. This production, by the Gran Teatre del Liceu of Barcelona, maintains the folkloric ambience demanded by both the libretto and the music, in costuming and dramaturgy though the physical sets are minimal and symbolic. Jancek incorporated not only authentic Czech melodies but also the distinctive aesthetics of Czech folk music into his symphonic score. There are four central characters: Jenufa, the beautiful stepdaughter; her stepmother Kostelnicka, a stern, domineering widow of village prominence; and her two foster "brothers" Steva and Laca. It's Steva who impregnates Jenufa but evades marrying her, while it's Laca who disfigures her out of mad jealousy but loves her unreservedly. Steva is handsome, dissolute, irresponsible, and charming. Laca is dour and plodding. The strongest spirit in the family is the fierce Kostelnicka, whose determination to save her stepdaughter and herself from shame leads to her downfall.
Kostelnicka is powerfully sung and acted by the acclaimed aging Wagnerian superstar Eva Marton. In this production, as well as on the other available DVD of Jenufa, it's Kostelnicka who dominates both the drama and the musical passion. Fortunately, Nina Stemme sings the role of Jenufa every bit as powerfully, and acts her role as emotively as Marton. That isn't the case, by the way, on that other DVD, where Anja Silja is magnficent as Kostelnicka but Roberta Alexander is inadequate as Jenufa, both dramatically and vocally.
Laca is sung by Jorma Silvasti, whose gorgeously ample voice and convincing stage presence thrust his role to the forefront of every scene in which he appears. In short, he nearly steals the show. The wastrel Steva is a lesser man in every way, and the role of Steva is smaller than Laca's; Pär Linskog sings and acts Steva effectively, but he's overshadowed musically by Silvasti.
Eight minor characters and a chorus of villagers complete the vocal cast, all singing more than adequately. One of the joys of this DVD is the exquisite balance between the singers and the orchestra, fully integrated with each other in acoustic presence. The Orchestra of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, conducted by Peter Schneider, plays with clarity and transparency, and without any of the late-romantic schmaltz that often fuddles the complex sonorities of Janacek's music on other recordings.
There's a solid exegesis of Jancek's philosophical-musical intentions in the notes to this DVD, which I'll quote: "Janacek's moral ideology is influenced by a specific vison of nature. His understanding of tragedy is not marked out by the classical concept of sin. It is in nature that Janacek found a cyclical transcendency that had a deep effect on his work. There is no pessimistic view of human nature in Jenufa .... there is always rebirth and hope as premised by nature ... amid the stones scattered over the stage, amid the traces of the tragedy that has befallen her, a new beginning for Jenufa's life is sealed." Hey, I couldn't say it more clearly myself; in Janacek's operas and music, the Sublimity of Life always prevails.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
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It's a thrill just to note that there are three DVDs of Leos Janacek's "Jenufa", and that all of them have merit. Dare I say that Janacek's "time has come" and that his operas now hold the stage alongside Verdi's and Wagner's both in Europe and America? Now there are excellent performances on DVD of:
Katya Kabanova: Janacek: Katia Kabanova
The Makropoulos Case: Janacek - The Makropulos Case / Davis, Silja, Begley, Glyndebourne Festival Opera [But I still hope for a better production of this.]
The Cunning Little Vixen: The Cunning Little Vixen - Janacek
Th House of the Dead: Leos Janacek: From the House of the Dead - Festival Aix-en-Provence 2007
Janacek owed a lot to Richard Wagner, especially in this early opera Jenufa, first staged in 1904. In fact, a comparison of Jenufa with works by Wagner is almost inevitable, both of the musical structures and of the libretti. I had considered titling this review something like "The Best Opera Wagner Couldn't Have Written" ... but I chickened out. A major point of comparison is that both composers wrote their own librettos, and it's the superiority of Janacek's libretto-writing that most elevates him beyond.
Almost every modern opera -- post-Wagner opera, shall I say? -- is both a theatrical play and an extended vocal/choral symphonic work. There are just a few in which the play and the music are each worthy of the other ... and Leos Janacek wrote five of them. I haven't noticed any reviews or analyses of Jenufa that point out how obviously Janacek must have been influenced by the plays of Henrik Ibsen. The Slavic Connection, to Chekhov, can't be denied, but Jenufa is Ibsenesque in affect and dramaturgy. Filling out some of the dialogue, it would be plausible to perform Jenufa as a play without music; I wonder, in fact, whether anyone has already done so. The acting, therefore, in a staging of the opera ought to be all skillful and convincing as the singing. A fine singer-actor like Anja Silja can drive a performance of Jenufa emotionally, but a miscast actress-singer can dampen the drama painfully; I'm thinking of Silja nd Roberta Alexander in the oldest of the Jenufa DVDs, from Glyndebourne. The actors of this production from Madrid, directed by Stephane Braunschweig, are Ibsen-worthy in every way, with the trivial quibble that Amanda Roocroft could and should have been made-up to look younger in the title role. Nikolai Schukoff plays Steva as a weasly weakling, just as he should. Miroslave Dvorsky gives us a harsh, angry Laca, a "good" man who really might win Jenufa's love by his fierce loyalty to her. Roocroft's Jenufa is a foolish girl from whom too much is hoped, still a foolish mother of a scandalous baby, and then a woman plausibly matured by tragedy enough to make a go of her life after all. But the chief character of this drama isn't Jenufa; it's her mother, Kostelnicka, whose actions and decisions impel the course of events. Most Kostelnickas in productions of Jenufa are too simply wicked tyrannical hags. Even Silja's Kostelnicka was too unalleviatedly nasty. In terms of dramaturgy, Deborah Polaski redefines the role of Kostelnicka as a human being with strengths of character that betray her into folly. This Kostelnicka is a woman whom her community would respect, would even venerate for her severe uprightness. That such a woman could be driven by pride, but also by earnest love for her daughter, to commit a horrible crime becomes, as I said, a tragedy worthy of Ibsen.
Polaski matches her performance as an actress by singing Kostelnicka as a powerful but vulnerable woman rather than as a shrieking harridan. Both her physical presence -- her height -- and the richness of her vocal timbres dominate the stage and the music. Without even seeing the cringing Steva, from voices alone and without subtitles, one can hear how she terrifies him. Her maternal dominance of Jenufa, in voice and in manner, is vivid enough to make it convincing that Jenufa would believe her lie that the baby had died. That's a key moment in the play, and this is the only production I've seen in which it's effective.
In the other recent staging of Jenufa, from Barcelona, the role of Laca is sung by Jorma Silvasti. To my ears, Silvasti excels Miroslav Dvorsky vocally -- a more appealing voice and stunningly artful phrasing -- but Dvorsky's characterization of Laca is more effective dramatically and still quite good musically. The edge goes to Ivor Bolton over Peter Schneider as conductor also, for his very effective use of grand pauses, for his sustenance of instrumental intensity without bombast, and for the transparency of the orchestral ensemble in response to his baton. Schneider's interpretation is good, mind you, but Bolton's is a notch better. I could wish, however, that the camera had paid less attention to Bolton's bizarre gyrations during the overtures. He's not a pretty sight to begin with, but here he's ostentatiously "hamming" for the camera. No one could possibly follow his flailing baton, so I'm convinced that all the work of interpretation had been finished in rehearsal. Otherwise, the camerawork and the editing are movie-theater proficient, with an artful balance of close-up and full-stage imaging. Since the set is bare-bones simple, this editing needs to be effective, and it is. Jenufa is a tragedy, a dark tormented tale of sexual abandonment, jealousy, and infanticide. But it's not an overblown melodrama like so many tragic operas, and it ends with a survival of human worth.