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It takes a lot of strength to be Jenufa

September 29, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

A few weeks ago, Los Angeles Opera announced that it had graciously allowed a young tenor, Joseph Kaiser, out of his contract to sing Steva in the company's first production of Janácek's "Jenufa," which opened Thursday night in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The Metropolitan Opera was desperate, its star tenor, Rolando Villazón, having just dropped out of Gounod's "Romeo and Juliet."

The fact is, L.A. Opera's gracious gesture cost the company little. There is a bit of buzz about Kaiser, but nobody much cares about Steva, who is a ninny.

Janácek's operas are mostly women's work. The Czech nationalist composer had a genius for portraying remarkable female characters forced to rise above the meanness, callousness or just plain stupidity of male society. Is there any trial in all opera greater than that of the weary, immortal Emilia Marty, who had to fight off 300 years of unwanted attention from men in "The Makropulos Affair"?

"Jenufa" is Janácek's first great opera and his most popular, and I don't imagine any amount of pleading or horse trading would have been sufficient for the company to release Karita Mattila, who made her debut with the company Thursday, from her obligations at the Music Center. A powerful presence onstage -- ferocious, vulnerable, sensual -- the intense, dazzling Finnish soprano is in a class of her own. She is, without any question, the Jenufa of choice.

Mattila, who was a classmate of Esa-Pekka Salonen in Finland, is no stranger to Los Angeles, and it is perhaps a little surprising that she is also not singing Sibelius and Kaija Saariaho with the Los Angeles Philharmonic across the street in the coming weeks. But no matter. She delivers everything she is known for in "Jenufa."

And yet she is not the only attraction in this production, given the startlingly fine performance by Eva Urbanová as Jenufa's stepmother, the Kostelnicka. In many ways, this upright villager who commits infanticide is the most interesting figure in a work that struggles with the deep implications of breaking with convention.

Written at the beginning of the 20th century, "Jenufa" is the opera in which Janácek invented a national style whose musical lines follow the shape of the Czech language. Yet that style proved so revolutionary that it took more than half a century for his operas to enter the standard repertory.

In "Jenufa," he celebrates village life in music of startling originality, with percussive, herky-jerky rhythms and melodies that rise in glowing lusciousness yet disappear just as the ear is about to latch on to them. The orchestra is important, and the instrumental writing is forest-like, thick, unpredictable but instinctively organic.

Beautiful, uncomplicated Jenufa loves her handsome cousin Steva and is loved by Steva's crude half-brother, Laca. Rebuffed by Jenufa, Laca slashes her cheek, disfiguring her to make her unattractive to Steva.

Secretly pregnant with Steva's child, Jenufa finds her life ruined. In a moral crisis, the Kostelnicka, the village's representative of social values, drowns the baby in order to save her stepdaughter. Jenufa, the Kostelnicka and Laca become outcasts, yet through Jenufa's saintly forgiveness comes salvation. The opera ends in extraordinary radiance.

Urbanová is a frightening Kostelnicka, who subtly falls apart around the edges before her breakdown. The woe-is-me business in the last act is too much, but that is probably the fault of the director, Olivier Tambosi.

Tambosi is not particularly inspired in his approach to the title character either. Mattila is too predictably asked to be girlish in the first act, demented in the second and wise and angelic in the third. But she finds so many nuances in each, and she sings with such surety, that she rises above this ordinary production, which has been a lot of other places over the years -- the Metropolitan Opera and Covent Garden among them.

There is not much objectionable on the stage other than the big, ugly boulder that serves as furniture for the Kostelnicka's house in the second act. It sounds like it's made of papier-mâché when the Kostelnicka madly hits it.

The men do well, or at least as well as can be expected in this feminist opera. Kim Begley is never a very threatening Laca, his heart of gold evident from the start. Jorma Silvasti's Steva is not so much heartless as clueless, and his attempts to understand Jenufa are touching. Both tenors are excellent at showing compassion.

The many small roles and choral parts, including the grandmother (Elizabeth Bishop), are not interestingly developed dramatically in this banal production, but, again, none is objectionable.

James Conlon conducts a terrific performance. He is hard-hitting, letting the percussion rip. But he also is slow and expressive. Janácek uses the orchestra both for its startling massed effects and as a group of soloists, the voices of individuals not beaten down by society. A bassoon solo or violin solo can come out of nowhere and disappear just as rapidly, and all the solos, far too many to single out, are beautiful.



Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 2 p.m. Sunday and Oct. 7; 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Oct. 10 and 13

Price: $20 to $238

Contact: (213) 972-8001 or

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