Janacek - Jenufa

Paris, Théâtre du Châtelet, May 24, 2003

Conductor: Sylvain Cambreling. Production: Stéphane Braunschweig. Jenufa: Karita Mattila. Kostelnicka: Rosalind Plowright. Laca: Stefan Margita. Steva: Gordon Gietz. Buryjovka: Menai Davies. Starek: Ivan Kusnjer. Judge: René Schirrer. Judeg's wife: Galina Kuklina. Orchestre de Paris.

The less said about bad opera productions (leaving more space to discuss good ones), the better, we might feel. But it turns out to be a great deal harder to do justice in writing to an outstanding evening than to a more commonplace one. Stéphane Braunschweig’s 1996 production of Jenufa was one of the finest I have ever seen. Ever the optimist, I was afraid that when at last it returned to the Châtelet the revival might prove a disappointment. But it didn’t: with a different cast, the magic nevertheless worked again.

The production, as befits the work, is dark and spare. The story is told straight, helped by a few stunning theatrical gestures, not hindered by fancy concepts. Unity comes from a simple basic color scheme: black and shades of dark grey; white and its variants; an occasional touch of troubled, bloody red. The sets are large, plain walls of dark-stained wood that slide and pivot to create different spaces. Costumes are mainly black or white, apart from the soldiers’ red tunics. Props are minimal but right: Jenufa’s potted rosemary; a wrought-iron cot; pews.

The one major effect is the appearance, first in act one, of the battered red mill sails, turning slowly. They emerge through the stage behind the kneeling Jenufa to form a kind of fan behind her, at this stage a novel but relatively simple reminder that the action takes place among millers. But they emerge again in a stroke of theatrical genius at the end of act two: as Kostelnicka sinks into madness, flattened against the wall behind the empty cot, her arms raised, her fingers curled into claws, the sails emerge again, casting deep, menacing shadows across her in the strong cross-lighting, an expressionist picture of sheer horror.

Singers are not necessarily natural actors. Braunschweig was no doubt well-served this time, as he was in ’96 with Anja Silja, Philip Langridge and Nancy Gustafson; nevertheless he must take credit for training his soloists and chorus to master every movement and gesture. Directors come in for a lot of stick. But as this Jenufa illustrates, a great production raises melodrama to the level of tragedy or (cf Khovanshchina in Brussels) epic, carrying the cast and the audience with it. Any vocal imperfections become irrelevant. A poor one (e.g. Miller’s Traviata) has the opposite effect, demoralizes the troops and drags them down.

The cast was dominated by Mattila, Plowright and Margita. Mattila now has this part, it seems, under her skin. At times her delivery of Janacek’s rapid parlando was so natural as to be uncanny, so near to quiet speech yet carrying across the pit, perfectly audible. She was, if anything, still better than in New York earlier this year. Her act two prayer was a great moment. Rosalind Plowright was a tall, handsome, straight-backed Kostelnicka with great presence and a hugely powerful voice. She was stunning as she hovered over the cot, about to expose the baby. Stefan Margita, capable of great nuance, from whispering to clarion high notes, managed almost (but not quite) to erase the memory of the superb Langridge in 1996. Gordon Gietz made up for slightly less power with youthful good looks that made more sense of the plot than the sometimes portly Stevas we see, and, electrified by the overall quality of performance and production, the rest of the cast was fully rehearsed, fully committed and good.

Fortunately, the general feeling that something very special was taking place also silenced the audience’s coughing, though not every cell-phone: one went off in act two, perhaps the worst possible place. It also prevented the shortcomings of the Orchestre de Paris under Sylvain Cambreling – problems of coordination and intonation and a disappointing lack of impact at key moments such as the end of act two – from spoiling the show.

A Paris triumph doesn’t get a standing ovation, but cheering is the norm. This particular evening, cheering wasn’t enough, so the audience stamped their feet as well on the wooden floorboards. A rare racket – but at the opera, evenings like this are rare indeed.

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