by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Feb. 3, 2003.
A few minutes before the end of Leos Janácek's "Jenufa," now at the Metropolitan Opera, the orchestra unleashes a long-drawn-out, floor-trembling storm of sound, in the elemental key of C. A pause follows, during which the audience may be tempted to make a noise of its own, particularly when a singer of the magnitude of Karita Mattila has been working at the height of her art. But the hall is silent; even those who do not know the opera feel that something remains to be said. Over pulsing chords, which have the rhythm of heavy breathing, violins and soprano begin to sing an entirely new melody, in the new key of B-flat—a long, sustained note, followed by a quickly shaking figure, with a shadow of C below. The music has the motion of a bird in flight: it glides, beats its wings, dips down, and soars again into blue heaven. Then another new theme surfaces, one that cuts through the octave like the sun at noon. The music disappears into brilliant chords of E-flat, bedecked with overtones and shimmering arpeggios.
It is one of the most uncannily beautiful scenes in opera, and all the more remarkable for coming at the end of one of opera's creepiest tales. Jenufa is a Moravian peasant girl who has had a baby out of wedlock with her cousin Steva. When Steva learns of the infant, he flees, and shortly thereafter the baby disappears. Laca, Steva's jealous half brother, steps in to marry Jenufa, which he has wanted to do all along, to the point of violent rage. In the middle of the wedding, terrified shrieks rise offstage: a baby's corpse has been found beneath the ice. Jenufa recognizes her child, and the villagers advance on her with murderous intent. Then Jenufa's stepmother—the Kostelnicka—makes a blood-curdling confession: in an effort to save the reputation of the family, she killed the baby herself. Once the pillar of the village church, she is dragged off to what will surely be a bad fate, and Jenufa is left alone with her new husband. This is where Janácek stages his fake climax in C major, and we realize that the preceding horror has been a test for the couple. That birdlike melody expresses Jenufa's loving resignation, as she gives Laca permission to walk away from the ugliness that is surrounding her. Laca answers, "I would bear far more than that for you. What does the world matter, when we have each other?" At that moment, Janácek's two closing melodies merge into one.
"Jenufa" is a deceptively "folkish" opera that reasserts its greatness with each performance. It begins small, with colorful scenes of village life; the vocal lines follow the rhythms and pitches of conversational speech. By the end, Janácek is working on a grand scale, his music radiating an almost religious ecstasy. There is another melody in the repertory that glides and shakes as Jenufa's song does—the theme of reconciliation that rises over the ruins of Valhalla, at the end of the "Ring." The love of Jenufa and Laca, like the love of Wagner's Brünnhilde, acquires a cosmic, world-changing force. Yet Janácek never loses touch with the grit of the real. What we hear is the sound not of transcendence but of simple happiness, which subdues darkness by forgetting it. "Jenufa" glows from within.
What a phenomenon Karita Mattila has become! Her voice is a complete instrument, a thing of beauty and power. She sails over the orchestra without effort, retaining the honeyed warmth of her tone even at the highest volume. Perhaps a Czech singer would have brought tangier diction to the part—when Gabriela Benacková sang Jenufa ten years ago, in the days before Met titles, you could fool yourself into thinking that you understood Czech—but, all in all, who cares? As other star singers acquire weird mannerisms or overreach themselves, Mattila keeps it simple and conquers all. And, yes, she looks fabulous, even when chugging a beer. Let's hope that the punishing role of Salome, which she sings in Paris this fall and at the Met next year, does not damage her voice.
The rising tenor Kim Begley, who, as Laca, is making his Met début, was a bit overshadowed by the Mattila extravaganza, but he sang from strength, showing no strain when he reached up to a high B-flat toward the end. His tone lacked some color, but it still rang true. Christopher Ventris, another big-voiced young tenor, made for an impetuous, colorful Steva. Deborah Polaski sang the stepmother, and, though she supplied her usual glowering intensity, she competed unsuccessfully with my vivid memories of Anja Silja, who sang this role with ferocious psychological specificity at the Deutsche Oper, in Berlin, last year. We don't have a sense of who Polaski's Kostelnicka really is, or why she does what she does. With Silja, it was as if you had read an entire Tolstoy story about the character the moment she walked onstage. Something about the way she folded her laundry made a gruesome climax inevitable. An excellent new recording of "Jenufa" on the Erato label, led by Bernard Haitink, gives us Mattila and Silja together; this is singing of intelligent fire.
The Met's new staging, which runs through February 13th, is more or less the same as a recent Covent Garden production, from which the Erato recording derives. It begins with a vaguely realistic depiction of a mill in a wheat field, but in Act II the stage is occupied by a huge, annoying rock; a friend suggested that it represents Society's Oppressive Conception of Sin. In Act III, the rock is still there, though now it's broken into fragments, so that it no longer looks like a mixup at the set shop. On opening night, the stage movement lacked energy and purpose; even Mattila occasionally seemed unsure of herself. But Vladimir Jurowski, the gifted new music director of the Glyndebourne Festival, took command with his forceful, Karajanesque conducting, choosing some riskily slow tempos but drawing out a sumptuous, Wagnerian sound. The Met orchestra clearly likes him: such finesse is usually heard only when James Levine is on the podium. Never mind the high-school symbolism—this "Jenufa" makes a glorious noise.
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