Leos Janacek's opera "Jenufa" is one of those Eastern
European gems that we rarely get to see in the West. The San Francisco Opera's
production is absolutely riveting. It opens with the Grandmother sitting in
a chair, Laca sitting on a corner of the stage whittling a whip handle, and
a totally distressed Jenufa. Helga Dernesch's Grandmother is solid and stern.
She throws a sharp, contemptuous glance at Laca. He's bitter and says she treats
him like a laborer. She has always shows affection for his older good-looking
brother, Steva. That's Jenufa's problem. Steva's at the Draft Board, and she's
worried that he's going to be taken and they won't be able to marry before she
has her baby. Nobody knows, and she's terrified.
Steva shows up with all the guys and he's drunk and having a great time. All the villagers are celebrating with folk dancing and music. This opera is a panache of different musical styles, from the recreation of Czech village life in music and dance, to strains from "Forest Murmers" from Wagner's "Siegfried" to the closing bars of "La Boheme." It's melodic, modern, and richly textured. It's purely Janecek, and defies any other categorization.
Jenufa's mother, Kostelnicka appears and the celebrants all
clear off to the side of the stage. Francesca Zambello's staging is outstanding,
as this scene is one of the finest. There's a triangle between Kostelnicka,
Jenufa, and Steva. That produces a dramatic tension that stops you cold. Her
husband was also a golden haired Buryja who used to get drunk and beat her.
She confronts Steva and he brandishes the back of his hand at her. She forbids
Jenufa to marry until he has stayed sober for a year.
Laca has loved Jenufa since they were children, and says all
Steva sees in her is her pretty face. He grabs her to kiss her, they struggle,
and he cuts her face.
The last two acts take place in Kostelnicka's cottage. It's
drab and gray and has the feel of a prison cell. Jenufa has been hidden there,
and had her baby. The Mother wants the baby to die, so Jenufa won't lose her
honor. She drugs her. Steva comes, offers money, but doesn't want anything to
do with Jenufa because she has lost her looks. Laca comes and wants to marry
Jenufa, but backs off when he learns of Steva's baby. Kostelnicka assures him
that the baby died, then she drowns the baby under the ice in the river. She
tells Jenufa that she has been asleep for days, and the baby has died. She consents
to marry Laca, a window blows open, and Kostelnicka shrieks as she sees the
icy hand of death.
The wedding is a double one. At Jenufa's urging Laca has made
up with Steva. He's marrying the Mayor's daughter, and it's one of the oddest
affairs you'll ever see. The Mayor and his wife and daughter are in gaudy, brightly
colored gowns. Jenufa is dressed in simple black and white. It's all very uncomfortable.
Village girls and children burst in. They weren't invited, so they won't stay
long, but since there's no music at the Wedding they'll bring some. Somebody
has found the baby frozen in the ice. Everyone runs out. Jenufa recognizes the
little red cap. She has it when she comes back to the cottage. Everyone accuses
her. Kostelnicka confesses, repents, and Jenufa embraces, and forgives her.
She tells Laca that he doesn't have to marry her, but he loves her and stays.
She says he's about the best person she's ever known.
Kathryn Harries is a tremendous Kostelnicka. She's strong and resolute as she dresses down Steva in the first act. She's protective of Jenufa, and after the baby's born, she gradually succumbs to madness, if that's what you want to call it. She's raving one minute, calm and thoughtful the next. Her body will stiffen and jerk, then calm. The emotions change fast and are real. Patricia Racette's Jenufa is just as good. She's off in her own world, then back. She raves when she can't find her baby, then accepts it when he dies. Little asides, like when the Mayor's wife tells her she's dressed for a funeral, send her off to dreamland again, then back. She finds herself at the end, when she forgives her Mother, then truly loves Laca. That's where she is OK from then on. Richard Berkeley-Steele's Laca is bitter and impetuous at first. He's always devoted, and when that's returned he's softens. Jay Hunter Morris is a cocky and mostly self-assured Steva. It's a fine cast, top to bottom. Jiri Kout led the orchestra in this luscious sound experience, that, coupled with one of the finest stagings of the season is Leos Janacek's "Jenufa" at The San Francisco Opera.