In Brief: Jenufa

Even a less than perfect performance of Leos Janácek’s Jenufa can hardly fail to communicate this shattering work’s lesson in love, healing, and forgiveness, a message the Met’s new production delivers eloquently. The hero of the evening is Vladimir Jurowski, whose musical command of Janácek’s special idiom is complete. Some conductors never get the hang of this singular composer’s interlocking rhythmic patterns and stabbing melodic themes, but Jurowski brings it all together seamlessly—seldom has the virtuosity of the Met orchestra been put to better use.

The production team—director Olivier Tambosi, set and costume designer Frank Philipp Schlössmann, and lighting designer Max Keller—endured some loud boos on opening night, no doubt from Met regulars aghast at anything that is not strictly representational. The pivotal metaphor is a huge rock formation that pokes up from the ground in Act One—the stone that Jenufa says weighs upon her life as an unwed mother-to-be—and later dominates the stage and the girl’s life. Both are shattered by the infanticide that concludes Act Two. The stone reappears as fragments in Act Three—weapons the townsfolk use to threaten Jenufa until her stepmother, Kostelnicka, confesses to the crime. The device results in some awkward moments, but more often it conveys a powerful image.

Best of all, Tambosi explores the characters’ actions with blistering intensity: One tiny moment of body language is enough to show the gulf between Jenufa’s suitors—the feckless Steva, who betrays her, and the flawed but devoted Laca, whom she learns to love—as they reluctantly shake hands just before Laca’s marriage to Jenufa.

Everyone fully expected that Karita Mattila would make an ideal Jenufa, and so she has. I doubt if her soprano will ever sound more glorious than it does right now, full and vibrant throughout its range. It’s a shame she cannot play opposite a worthier Kostelnicka. Deborah Polaski’s blunt acting is a disappointment, her voice marred by rough edges. As the two tenor suitors, Kim Begley (Laca) and Christopher Ventris (Steva) are ideally contrasted, physically and vocally, while all the smaller roles are done with zest. It’s sad to see so many empty seats at the Met these days, especially when the company is having such a strong run of new productions, none better than this distinguished Jenufa.

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In Brief: Jenufa