Friday, February 2, 2007

Janacek's Willful Women

composed by Leos Janacek
directed by Olivier Tambosi
conducted by Jiri Belohlavek
starring Karita Mattila, Anja Silja, Raymond Very, Jorma Silvasti

The Metropolitan Opera
January 29-February 17, 2007

Mattila as Jenufa

Aside from Richard Strauss, Czech composer Leos Janacek's heroines are the most vividly drawn in opera. From the fox Sharp-Ears in his anthropomorphic delight The Cunning Little Vixen to the immortal Emily Marty in his eerie fantasy The Makropulos Case, Janacek consistently created strong-willed women as the protagonists of his musical theater works, whose onstage strength is further enhanced by the surging power of Janacek's music.

His first operatic success, Jenufa, originally premiered in 1904; its current Metropolitan Opera production debuted in 2003 and has returned this season. As the lone Janacek opera to focus on two women, Jenufa provides ample opportunities for high drama.

That drama is, as usual, brilliantly supplied by soprano Karita Mattila, who movingly portrays the title character and her dilemma: pregnant with the child of Steva, the unconcerned man she loves, Jenufa eventually overcomes his coldness, her stepmother Kostelnicka's murderous action, and the jealous affection of Laca, Steva's half-brother.

Mattila is convincing throughout as her Jenufa moves from lovestruck young woman to wounded, scarred survivor, and she sings Janacek's brittle vocal lines with impassioned authority.

As the stepmother Kostelnicka, the ageless Anja Silja (she made her operatic debut in 1960!) more than matches–and even exceeds–Mattila's intensity, particularly in the astonishing second act climax, when Kostelnicka decides to take matters into her own hands after Jenufa gives birth to Steva's unwanted child.

As the half-brothers between whom there is no love lost, the vocally solid Raymond Very (Steva) and Jorma Silvastri (Laca) are less than ideal physically and histrionically for their roles, making them no match for Mattila's heroine.

Olivier Tambosi's spare production does have one plus: its inventive lighting effects. But its annoyingly impressionistic sets are clearly wrong for this opera, and the large boulder that is the centerpiece of the second act looks like a monstrosity placed in the corner of a wood-paneled corner gallery of an empty modern-art museum. That's not what Janacek's expressive musical drama is all about.

Jiri Belohlavek conducts a competent reading of Janacek's score, but there's rarely the necessary underlining the steely resolve of both the heroine and her stepmother. Still, the musical power of one of the composer's most vividly dramatic operas remains, thanks to Mattila's and Silja's presence.

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