Jenůfa: Kindertotenlieder

The Bartered Bride taught us that Czech peasants are adorable. Janáček’s Jenůfa teaches us that they (or at least the Moravian variety if we want to be real precise) actually are evil. Neither of Jenůfa’s men seem like good catches, and her mother kills Jenůfa’s baby. This is not a happy opera. Like in some similar works, it is the angelic light emitted by the female protagonist and the glow of the music’s lyricism that makes it more than just an exercise in misery.

Some rough edges were still showing at Monday’s first performance at the Staatsoper this season, but the cast of Angela Denoke, Agnes Baltsa, and co. is good, the production simple and effective, and the conducting promising, so: worth seeing. Well, it’s Janáček, so of course it’s worth seeing. But that’s just my opinion.

Janáček, Jenůfa. Wiener Staatsoper, 5/9/2010. (In German.) Production by David Pountney (revival), conducted by Graeme Jenkins with Angela Denoke (Jenůfa), Agnes Baltsa (Kostelnička), Jorma Silvasti (Laca), Marian Talaba (Števa).

The biggest shock for me was when Jenůfa started singing and I could understand what she was saying. Somehow I missed that the Staatsoper performs this opera in a German translation. Janáček approved of it, but it’s still no good, in my opinion. The rhythm of the text feels entirely different from the original and much clunkier, no longer in tune with the musical line. Comprehensibility seems to come at too high a cost in this case. Luckily the new production of Kat’a Kabanová, coming in June, will be sung in Czech.

This Staatsoper run is going under the fancy name of a Wiederaufnahme, which means it got more rehearsal than a regular repertoire performance. The could be seen in the better-than-average direction of David Pountney’s straightforward production. It probably helped that three of the principals were back from the 2002 premiere as well. Musically, there were hiccups. I suspect some of the singers sounded better in 2002.

Graeme Jenkins’s conducting had some lovely poetic moments and a good general feel for the music’s pace, particularly in the start and end of the opera. This was more a lyrical reading than a folksy one. But a few sections sounded shaky or tentative, and the chorus and orchestra were separated a bit in Act 1. The end of Act 2, staged as a frozen tableau, needed more tension to convince. The orchestra, though, was on decent behavior and I suppose it will all get better later in the run.

Angela Denoke is an excellent Jenůfa. Her voice is well-controlled but not naturally beautiful (the white, straight-tone high notes in particular are an issue), but she is so wonderfully expressive that this does not seem to matter. She gives the impression of living in this music and role, her singing and acting always working as one. Her Jenůfa is never cloyingly naive, but pure goodness.

Agnes Baltsa is immensely popular here and her performance falls into the same general category as Denoke’s–more memorable as a whole theatrical experience than as a vocal one. Her Kostelnička is a formidable, and yet more sympathetic and less monstrous than many. But, and I’m in the minority here, I find her singing just too ugly. The lower half of her voice has a nasal tinge and the upper half is threadbare. I’m not sure why Denoke was so convincing to me and Baltsa ultimately was not, but that’s how it was.

The men were on the weaker side of things, with Jorma Silvasti as Laca sounding excellent and solid until he had to sing anything above the staff and then there was trouble. He is a fine actor, though. Marian Talaba, the only principal member of the cast not in the 2002 premiere, struggled through Števa with an effortful, forced tenor and self-conscious acting. In the smaller roles, Caroline Wenborne stood out as Karolka, producing what really were the most beautiful and healthy tones of the night.

David Pountney’s production is austere and generally effective. The unit set of dull gray walls is elaborated by a complex mill wheel in Act 1 (which turns with the woodblock’s ticking, whatever could that mean? better get the Subtle Symbolism Detectives on the case), lots of bags of grain in Act 2, and just a wedding feast in Act 3. It is very dreary and I missed the element of nature and the outdoors you associate with this sort of opera, but it works well enough. Personenregie was naturalistic, fairly detailed, and respectable. I am not sure, however, why the wedding guests started smashing dishes in Act 3, and it did seem to distract from Jenůfa. Costumes, like the sets, are monochromatic, except for Act 3, and show obvious but sensible characterization. The lighting design is nice, though sometimes the shifts were too quick.

Ultimately this didn’t have the cataclysmic payoff that Jenůfa can, but it’s still good. Look for it to improve over the course of the run. Standing room was deserted, so you wouldn’t even have to wait for long to get a good spot. Further performances on 12, 15, 19, 22 May.

Sorry for the crappiness of this review, I’ve been strung out on allergy medicine all week and can’t think straight. This was a singularly appropriate opera to see when part of my face was still a little puffy and weird, though.

Also, does anyone else want to see a Jenůfa set in the rural American South? Or maybe with Mormons? Creative American Opera House, make it happen.

Photos copyright Wiener Staatsoper.

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Elektra: Turban outfitters

Despite having a cool-looking production for once, the Wiener Staatsoper’s photos have failed me again, hence the above. Everyone wears turbans, obviously, which is only fitting for an opera full of screaming divas. This iteration of Harry Kupfer’s production, with Janice Baird and Agnes Baltsa conducted by Peter Schneider is surprisingly not bad, which is not the same as saying that all of it is good, but you could do a lot worse.

Strauss, Elektra. Wiener Staatsoper, 3/24/2011. Production by Harry Kupfer (revival), conducted by Peter Schneider with Janice Baird (Elektra), Agnes Baltsa (Klytämnestra), Silvana Dussmann (Chrysothemis), Ain Anger (Orest), Michael Roider (Aegisth).

The Staatsoper actually does provide a washed-out photo of this production, but it doesn’t do the unit set justice:

It looks pretty good! A giant statue, presumably of Agamemnon, is seen from the knees down, its toppled head hanging out off to the side. (I think the Met Elektra also involves a toppled statue?) It is stark, the lighting is starker. We open with some slaughtering and business with meat-hooks, but for the most part the production as seen now is totally conventional. Only the absence of an ax in the finale is unusual. The costumes mix a variety of periods: generic Middle Eastern, futuristic sci-fi, and a little fin-de-siècle with some epaulets and a sequined gown for Klytämnestra. The raked stage and darkness reminds me of the Staatsoper’s recent new Mozart productions... oh, the sets and lights for both were designed by Hans Schavernoch. Figures.

I was surprised how much this look helped things feel fresh, because interpretively there isn’t much going on and the Personenregie was not any better than your typical revival of a 1965 Boleslaw Barlog production. Kupfer is a good director of singers and I think it’s fair to guess that this production originally succeeded on this count. But any trace of that has disappeared in this 55th performance of the production. The blocking was a typically bad case of unmotivated milling around, with a few stretches that were horribly static. There’s a lot of pushing and knocking people to the floor. That fits this opera, but when done unconvincingly it just looks dumb.

But there were musical rewards. Peter Schneider can usually be counted on for a better-than-average workmanlike performance, but he was having a good night, and got the orchestra to turn in an exciting, churning, tense evening that occasionally made it to (sorry) Elektra-fying. It was all very loud and often drowned out the singers, who were constantly struggling to be heard, but come on, it’s Elektra. If there’s ever an opera where the orchestra deserves to be too loud, it’s this one. Shame that the Staatsoper seems to have cast a bevy of Mozart singers as the serving maids–they were overpowered almost completely. We can only hope these ladies aren’t also all going to be valkyries in a few weeks.

Janice Baird’s angular profile looks perfect as Elektra, but her performance had a lot of ups and downs. She took almost the entire opening monologue to warm up, sounding cloudy and underpowered (OK, against the Orchestra of Doom), but over the course of the opera her voice became more steely and cutting. A good effort, overall. Theatrically, a few well-observed acting details stuck out, but for the most part she was too static, particularly in the opening monologue where she was confined to a foot of the giant statue, gripping some hanging ropes. She and Orest cannot free themselves from these ropes attached to Agamemnon’s statue! The symbolism, it overwhelms.

Silvana Dussmann was new to me and a pleasant surprise as Chrysothemis, singing with a passionate outpouring of sound in a very nice full jugendlich-dramatische soprano. Her middle voice is her strongest feature, and sometimes her top notes would turn shrill and thin.

Agnes Baltsa is older than dirt (though she isn’t admitting it in her headshot in the program), and was never really a Klytämnestra voice if you ask me. There are some holes in her range and the tone is threadbare and has an unpleasant nasal edge. But what she lacks in voice she achieves in vicious dramatic histrionics, and she can sing the part, just not terribly well. I preferred Felicity Palmer at the Met last year in this role, while I would choose both Baird and Dussmann over their New York counterparts Bullock and Voigt.

Ain Anger was an exceptionally good Orest, singing with warm tone and excellent attention to the text. I am now looking forward to hearing him as Hunding in Walküre. Michael Roider was a sufficiently abrasive Aegisth, but sounded rather better than most do in this role. The supporting folks struggled against the orchestra with varying degrees of success–as all the leads did throughout the evening.

After that mediocre Salome I had low expectations for this one, but it is in fact totally worth seeing.

(Also, let’s have a moment for the patron opera of standees everywhere: “Ich kann nicht sitzen.”)

All my bows photos were blurry this time but I did get this shot of the surtitles’ odd closing. After Elektra? Really?

Production photo copyright Wiener Staatsoper.

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