wed 17/07/2024

Jenůfa, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Bělohlávek, RFH | reviews, news & interviews

Jenůfa, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Bělohlávek, RFH

Jenůfa, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Bělohlávek, RFH

Gorgeous sounds but not enough tension in concert Janáček

Adriana Kohútková as Jenůfa and Karita Mattila as the Kostelnička at the Festival HallAll images by Petr Kadlec

Janáček's lacerating music-drama of love-led sin and redemption in a 19th century Moravian village is the opera I'd recommend as the first port of call for theatregoers wary of the genre. Its emotional truths are unflinching, its lyricism as constantly surprising as the actions of its characters are often swift and violent. In the opera house, I've never seen a performance that didn't turn its audience inside out.

For all the revelations of orchestral beauty, though, a concert performance without a hint of semi-staging can't hope to achieve anything like the same effect, however fine the sounds – and some of last night's were as remarkable as they come. Just not, in many cases, quite right.

That was true of the smooth and sophisticated Czech Philharmonic, consistently beautiful. There's an argument for more sharp edges than this Bohemian ensemble cares to find; Moravian Brno, I'm told, is the place to hear Janáček, and that was where the magnificent and vigorous chorus hailed from (it goes by the slightly confusing name of the Czech Philhamonic Choir of Brno). While veteran interpreter of his native music Jiří Bělohlávek (pictured below) clearly knows Jenůfa inside out, mouthing all the mostly naturalistic, fast-moving text without reference to the score, his approach veers more to the luminous than the tense and dramatic.

Jiří BělohlávekStill, what a luxury to hear such warm wind playing, with first bassoonist Ondřej Roskovec outstanding, the striking horn parts both stopped and open taking full effect, and harpist Jana Boušková coming to the fore with Janáček's unusual writing to depict rippling water when our heroine, told she should have been a teacher, declares several times over that her intelligence has "gone downstream".

The smaller roles, odd as it may seem to start with them among the soloists, could not have been better taken. There were strong cameos from Marta Reichelová as exuberant shepherd boy Jano, Kateřina Jalovcová making her mark in the more relaxed opening of Act Three and impressive baritone Svatopluk Sem as the Foreman of the Mill (its revolving wheel, figured on repeated low xylophone notes, acts as a figure of tense fate in Act One). As the village girl Barena, Kateřina Kněžíková made enough of an impression to suggest that she might be a Jenůfa-in-waiting, while Yvona Škvárová, as Grandmother Buryjovka, could still cut to the quick as Buryjovka's stern daughter the Kostelnička or village sacristan.

Karita Mattila in concert JenufaThis is the role to which many sopranos and some mezzos aspire in later years, given the spotlight on the Kostelnička's extraordinary predicament in the harrowing second act where she thinks she’s giving her stepdaughter Jenůfa a better chance of happiness by drowning the poor girl’s illegitimate baby in the mill stream. Karita Mattila (pictured above in a rare moment looking up) was sounding at her incandescent best, which might have given an interesting characterisation of a wamer than usual nature had she not taken her score off the stand and held it, eyes glued downwards.

Admittedly the point of no return, when she finally engaged with the audience and threw her entire body as well as sound into the climactic moment of decision, was thrilling, and all the top notes were there. But why the restless fiddling with the not quite appropriate concert dress around the shoulders, a distraction when she should be offstage and all eyes fixed on Jenůfa? Why no reaction to the news that the baby's corpse has been found beneath the ice? And while she may well go on to develop the role and give of her usual stage-animal intensity in the opera house, Mattila's voice is still too lovely and lacking in steel, still tonally a better fit for the girl rather than the stepmother. Memories of the definitive if much more raw Kostelnička of Anja Silja, one of the all-time great performances, were never quite banished.

Ales Briscein as Laca in concert JenufaHad Slovakian soprano Adriana Kohútková been a stronger Jenůfa, the essential dynamic between two women – Southbank please note that Gabriela Preissová’s original play is a masterpiece of feminine if not feminist insight – might have come across with the searing contrasts it really needs. As it was, they barely looked at each other. Kohútková can send out radiant sound above the stave, but the voice often disappeared in the middle and lower range.

Best cast of the principals – though Jaroslav Březina’s jack-the-lad Števa certainly acted with the voice – was Aleš Briscein (pictured above) as Laca, the restless outsider whose jealousy of Jenůfa’s lover when he praises her rosy cheeks leads him to slash her face with a knife, an act which precipitates the tragedy. This tenor cut like a dagger throughout, brought the deeper emotion oddly missing in Jenůfa’s heavy lament for her dead child in his subsequent entry and flared up heart-stoppingly in his declaration of profound love in the last act. When, after the Kostelnička is led out for trial, Laca stands by Jenůfa and they face a difficult future together, the tears did finally flow. But they should really do so throughout, and that's certain to happen when ENO revives David Alden's production in June. In the meantime, with no inappropriate evening wear or lack of entrances and exits to worry about, this could well be a whole different experience as broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

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