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.