Jenufa Opera in three acts from Moravian peasant life [Brno Version 1908, edited by Sir Charles Mackerras and John Tyrell]
Jenufa Karita Mattila
Kostelnicka Buryjovka Anja Silja
Laca Klemen Jorma Silvasti
Steva Buryja Jerry Hadley
Grandmother Buryjovka Eva Randova
The Foreman Jonathan Veira
The Mayor Jeremy White
The Mayors Wife Carole Wilson
Karolka Leah-Marian Jones
The Herdswoman Elizabeth Sikora
Barena Rebecca Nash
Jano Gail Pearson
Old Woman Jennifer Higgins
A Man Jonathan Fisher
A Woman Eryl Royle
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Recorded at performances between 10-18 October 2001
Reviewed by: Tim Ashley
Reviewed: February 2003
CD No: ERATO 0927-45330-2
This new recording of Janacek’s harrowing study of repression, infanticide and redemption was taped live during the opening run of Olivier Tambosi’s Covent Garden production in October 2001.
It divided opinion at the time, with doubts raised about both the validity of staging as well as the appropriateness of Bernard Haitink’s conducting. Tambosi certainly dragged the work away from its provenance in naturalistic theatre and swamped it in symbolism, sometimes illuminating the psychology of the principalcharacters with considerable power, though throughout also playing down the presence of the moralistic, sexually hypocritical community against which the tragedy unfolds. Haitink, meanwhile, was criticised for his ultra-lyrical, reflective conducting of a work that ideally needs more edge, neurosis and stridency if it is to make its full impact. This wasn’t, in other words, a Jenufa that shredded your nerves and from which you emerged feeling shattered and shocked – as it should.
This last criticism, broadly, holds true of the recording as well. The primary reasons for its failure lie not so much in Haitink’s conducting, but in the fact that two key performances, unforgettable in the theatre, just don’t transfer to disc. Both Anja Silja’s Kostelnicka and Jerry Hadley’s Steva were primarily compounded of physical rather than musical gestures. Among the images etched in your memory after the curtain fell were Silja’s ramrod stiff back and sparse, reined-in movements offset by the fanaticism in her staring eyes and the delirium that contorted her face. Hadley, meanwhile, played Steva as a charismatic slob, weak-willed though astonishingly beautiful, with both his cowardice and his allure conveyed by his graceful, yet stoop-shouldered posture.
There are qualities, of course, that no recording can ever hope to convey, and in neither case here do we find a level of vocal characterisation that compensates for their absence. That Silja’s discography by and large fails to capture her theatrical power is, of course, a critical commonplace, and though she sings with great steadiness and a forceful tone, her performance seems monochrome with Kostelnicka’s moral and emotional hell less than perfectly delineated. Hadley, meanwhile, his voice now in decline, has very much become a ’singing actor’, and shorn of his physical presence, you’re left, I’m afraid, with a display of uningratiating, effortful sound, that leaves you wondering just what on earth Jenufa herself sees in him.
This inevitably skews both dramatic impact and plausibility, and fully throws the emotional burden of the opera onto Mattila’s Jenufa and Silvasti’s Laca. Mattila heightens Jenufa’s tragedy by presenting her at the outset as being at once sluttish and naive. In contrast to other interpreters, there’s a basic sensuality in her tone, a vocal opulence that precludes characterisation primarily based on the idea of mangled innocence. Emotionally uninhibited in her singing, as always, she greets Steva with misplaced erotic rapture as well as anguished uncertainty and dismisses Laca’s attentions with peevish snideness. Later, she’s genuinely harrowing, receiving the news of her baby’s death with broken numbness, while her hysteria on the discovery of the child’s corpse makes for difficult listening. Silvasti, meanwhile, is arguably the finest Laca on disc, singing with wonderfully bronzed tone and charting the man’s progress from violence through guilt to eventual rapture with unerring psychological accuracy.
As an opera conductor, meanwhile, Haitink can be notoriously underpowered on opening night, gradually improving as a run progresses. The accompanying booklet gives no indication as to which performances are included in the final master, though I suspect the first night is not among them, for his performance, though less than ideal, is better than I remember it on that occasion. He evinces a certain noble grandeur throughout, allowing Jenufa’s tragedy to unwind in a single, unremitting arc. The tone, however, is occasionally too lofty and the orchestral sound is often too smooth. You miss the intermittent flashes of rawness, the sudden moments of lurching wildness that are essential to great Janacek conducting.
Taken as a whole, the set can’t be recommended as an ideal first choice. Fans of Mattila and Silvasti needn’t hold back, though if you want to experience the work’s full power you need to look elsewhere. Charles Mackerras’s 1984 Decca version remains the benchmark studio recording, though some might find Elisabeth Söderström in the title role a fraction too mature. If you prefer the opera done live, then it’s worth searching out Myto’s issue of Jaroslav Krombholc’s 1964 Vienna Staatsoper performance. Purists might object that it comes in German rather than Czech, but pitting Sena Jurinac’s radiant Jenufa against theoverwhelming, truly tragic Kostelnicka of Martha Mödl, it generates a force that is second to none.