Monday, February 26, 2007


On the Saturday afternoon we were in New York, Joshua and I walked over to the Metropolitan Opera to attend the matinee performance of Janacek's "Jenufa".

"Jenufa" is one of my favorite operas, and it was the first opera Joshua and I listened to together. When we were still in school, we would study together most afternoons, and often we would listen to music while we studied. "Jenufa" was one of the first pieces of music I played for Joshua.

"Jenufa" is an entirely atypical Janacek opera. Its musical score is nowhere near as fine as his later works, all of which are far superior. It is, however, a deeply affecting work, with a moving story and with moving characters, and the fact that it is so affecting accounts for its current status as the most popular of Janacek's works for the stage.

Between the ages of twenty and fifty, Janacek's primary activity was teaching, a field in which he excelled. His secondary activity, during those years, was collecting and editing and publishing Moravian folk music, an activity that won him acclaim in Central Europe. Composition was a tertiary activity for Janacek until he semi-retired from teaching in 1903, at which time he made composition his primary focus for the first time. This accounts for the fact that the score for "Jenufa" is very uneven in quality. The opera has a weak Act I, a powerful Act II, and an Act III that is unable to maintain its focus. However, none of the "Jenufa" music is "mature" Janacek and, in the final 25 years of his life, years devoted primarily to composition, Janacek was to develop, significantly, into an entirely different and better composer.

"Jenufa" was begun in the mid-1890's. Janacek quickly completed the music for Act I, and then set the score aside for several years. He resumed work on the opera during his only daughter's fatal illness (a lone son had died in infancy twenty years earlier), and the music for Act II of "Jenufa", the heart of the musical drama and the only inspired portion of the score, is a study in human pain and duress. Janacek's daughter often asked her father to play the score of "Jenufa" as she lay dying. According to Janacek's housekeeper at the time, the Act II music for the Kostelnicka is a self-portrait of the composer.

The story of the opera's composition and its long route onto the world's stages is almost as moving as the story of the opera itself. First given a provincial production in Brno, the opera had to wait twelve years before it was accepted at a major theater, in Prague. However, it was accepted by Prague on condition that the opera be revised and re-orchestrated by a third party, a condition to which Janacek assented.

Two years later, the opera was produced in Vienna, at the Hofoper, on orders from the new Emperor, Karl I, who was keen to keep the Austro-Hungarian Empire in one piece during the latter stages of World War I, when tension between ethnic groups was growing, and who believed that Czech and Hungarian works needed to be introduced into the court opera repertory in order to help guard against potential fragmentation of his empire.

So, one month before the March 1918 offensive--an offensive that almost succeeded in winning World War I on behalf of the Germans and Austrians--"Jenufa" was produced, for the first time outside Czech-speaking territory, in a very lavish production in Vienna. Janacek attended the Vienna performances, and he wrote that it was in Vienna that he saw and heard his opera staged, effectively, for the first time.

However, it required another six years for "Jenufa" to stake its claim in the permanent opera repertory. That occured after a 1924 Berlin production, conducted by Erich Kleiber, a production that caught the world's attention and has held it ever since.

Joshua and I enjoyed the Metropolitan Opera performance of "Jenufa" very much, even though it was not good. What we enjoyed was having the opportunity to hear this score live.

The Met physical production, imported from Hamburg, simply had to be ignored. At times, it looked like a bus-and-truck road company production of "Oklahoma" and, at other times, it looked like the Bemidji State Theater Department's first attempt at staging a Beckett play after fifty years of restricting itself to annual productions of "Arsenic And Old Lace". I have seldom, if ever, witnessed such an inept stage production of anything, opera, play or ballet.

The original stage director was Olivier Tambosis, a Frenchman educated in Vienna, and his direction of this production has been ridiculed everywhere, by everyone--even by its performers--and I am, frankly, surprised that the Metropolitan Opera even offered this production a second time. The Met should have done what Covent Garden did with this production: wash its hands of it after one go-around.

But Josh and I knew the history of this production going in, and we ruthlessly ignored the physical production to the extent that we could.

The musical performance, however, was also disappointing.

The conductor was Jiri Belohlavek, a very fine musician, and I was surprised that his handling of this score was so soft-edged. I do not think that Belohlavek would offer this same performance in Prague. However, there is great concern about Belohlavek's health, especially in London, where he was recently intalled as conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and perhaps he lacked the energy or stamina to give the kind of performance he would have liked.

The orchestra lacked a Janacek sound, which did not surprise me. The string sound was too opaque, too dull, too lacking in nuance, too lacking in rhythmic subtlety, and too loud. The brass section did not enjoy a good afternoon. The percussion did not "sound" as it should, at least in the back of the auditorium, where we were sitting.

The Jenufa was Karita Mattila. I have heard her twice before: in "Salome" in Paris in 2003 and in "Un Ballo In Maschera" in London in 2005. She was not entirely successful in either of those roles--in fact, her Amelia was not successful in the least, although she looked stunning in the gowns devised for her at Covent Garden.

Her Jenufa was better than her Salome or Amelia, probably because the role suited her voice better. She gave a capable performance, I thought, but she has not yet "internalized" the role, and she seemed to be giving a performance "by the numbers". Given how many times Mattila has performed this role around the world, I thought she might have offered a more convincing performance. However, this was the last of six Metropolitan Opera performances for her, and she may have already moved on, mentally, to her next engagement. This is a danger encountered when the last performance in a run is attended.

In April, Mattila will give a recital in Saint Paul, and my parents and Josh and I will attend that recital. It will be interesting to hear whether Mattila can command the recital platform. Personally, I think that Mattila should be singing Wagner, as she has always struck me as a natural Wagner singer, but she may not enjoy singing Wagner, or she may fear that singing Wagner will harm her voice.

The Kostelnicka was Anja Silja. Three times in the past, I have purchased tickets to hear Silja, and each time she cancelled. One of her cancellations I suffered was the 2003 Paris "Salome" with Mattila, in which Silja was scheduled to sing Herodias.

On Saturday, she did not cancel.

Her performance, however, was not to my taste. If one danger of catching the last performance in a run is that a singer may operate via remote control, another danger is that a singer will throw caution to the winds and offer a scenery-chewing spectacular. The latter is what Silja offered on Saturday. It was indescribable. Theda Bara would have been embarrassed to offer such an unbridled assortment of theatrics.

It was all Josh and I could do to keep from snickering and giggling as Silja got more and more carried away. Four seats down from us, in our row, there were two very well-dressed ladies in their forties, and they were both laughing so hard that they had to bury their heads in their purses. As they exited our row after the conclusion of Act II, Josh and I stood to allow them to pass, and Josh said to one of them "It seemed that you did not enjoy all the dramatics".

"Priceless. It was priceless" was her response, and both of the ladies started laughing again.

The role of the Kostelnicka is the most important one in the opera, and the opera does not work if the Kostelnicka is not convincing. I have only seen and heard one convincing Kostelnicka, and that was Agnes Baltsa in Vienna.

And Miss Baltsa was riveting. She held the entire auditorium in the palm of her hand, and she barely moved a muscle. There was none of Silja's facial contorting and there was none of Silja's shameless mooning and posturing. And yet Miss Baltsa was able to convey, fully, the conflicting emotions of her troubled character. I could barely breathe during all of Miss Baltsa's Act II. In Act III, when she was taken away by the authorities, there was no doubt that she knew that she was going to a certain death (the only penalty possible for infanticide in the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time the story takes place) and a chill went through the entire Vienna State Opera House. By contrast, at the Met, one's reaction to seeing Silja being escorted away in Act III was "Darn! There goes the life of the party!".

It was, therefore, a mixed afternoon, all in all. Josh and I were pleased to have an opportunity to hear "Jenufa" live, and yet we were both disappointed that the performance was not on a higher level.

One thing I cannot understand is why the Metropolitan Opera offered to its audience this dismal Tambosis production a second time. Karita Mattila is on record as noting that she despises this particular production. Could not a new, worthy production have been created for her? Could not a better production have been borrowed from another house? Could not the Metropolitan Opera have revived its 1974 Gunther Rennert/Gunther Schneider-Siemssen production, only offered three times, once in the mid-1970's, once in the mid-1980's, and once in the mid-1990's? Has the 1974 production been destroyed?

My parents saw the 1974 production, and I asked them Saturday night whether that physical production had been any good. They described it as "gloomy" and "poorly-lighted", but that was all they remembered about the physical production.

"Gloomy" and "poorly-lighted" would have been pretty attractive that Saturday afternoon.

And so would the presence of Miss Baltsa.

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