Czech Philharmonic & Choir of Brno, Jirí Bélohlávek
Royal Festival Hall. 16 April 2016
As part of their International Orchestra Series, the Royal Festival Hall welcomed the Czech Philharmonic and their conductor Jirí Bélohlávek for a concert performance of Leoš Janáček’s opera Jenůfa, first performed in Brno 1904. It is known in Czech as Její pastorkyňa, “Her Stepdaughter”, the name of the book upon which it is based. It is the stepmother, Kostelnička Buryjovka who is the focus of the story, although the tragic figure of the story is the hapless Jenůfa. Kostelnička has a frequently manipulative hold on the complex system of family, friends and villagers that the opera explores, not least on her stepdaughter, Jenůfa, who is in love with, and secretly pregnant by, her cousin Števa Buryja, the frequently drunken saw-mill owner. Števa’s half-brother, Laca has loved Jenůfa since childhood and is insanely jealous of his half-brother who appears to have everything he lacks, including the girls. When his clumsy attempt at a kiss is repelled, he slashes Jenůfa’s face witha blunt knife, disfiguring her.
In the 19th century Moravian village culture reflected here, a pre-nuptial pregnancy could result in the mother being stoned to death, followed by eternal damnation. In the climactic second act, 8 days after the baby was born in secret, we learn that Števa is no longer interested in the scarred Jenůfa (and is now engaged to the Mayor’s daughter) and that Kostelnička’s solution is to kill the child while Jenůfa is asleep. One of the more chilling build-ups to this act is Kostelnička’s complaint that Jenůfa is ‘always cuddling the child instead of praying to God that he would relieve you of him’. A similar reflection of the attitudes of a village woman comes towards the end of the first act when Jenůfa chides Števa that if he looks at other girls, she will have to kill – not him, but herself.
The unfolding of this bleak tale is enlivened by Janáček’s evocative scenes of village life, notably the first act village revels with a group of drunken soldiers, the bragging Števa amongst them. Despite the tragic text, it is musically one of the most approachable of operas, not least because of Janáček’s style of composition, with little repeated four notes motifs (often based on a speech rhythm), simple melodic and harmonic structures and compelling orchestrations. One example is the use of the obsessively repetitive beat of a xylophone in the first act to underlie the more intense moments. And, like Monteverdi and his ilk at the birth of opera, he uses the natural rhythm of the Czech language, making the largely Czech cast and chorus particularly appropriate.
The cast was a very strong one, led by the Finnish soprano, Karita Mattila, for years a natural Jenůfa but, with her darkening voice, now just beginning to take the imperious role of Kostelnička Buryjovka. Although most of the cast used scores resting on music stands, for some reason Mattila made rather a meal of it, rather distractingly taking the score off the stand, moving the stand and her chair well forward, and then standing well behind both, holding the huge score rather awkwardly in her hand. Quite what that was all about is beyond me, but it probably gave the BBC sound engineers some headaches. More than others in the cast, she also hid her head in the score and only occasionally addressed the audience. That said, she took complete control of the role, notably during the middle act.
Adriana Kohútková was particularly impressive in the title role (particularly in her extended prayer in the central act) as was Jaroslav Brezina and Ales Briscein, the half-brothers Števa and Laca. I also liked the occupants of some of the minor roles, for example Marta Reichelová as Jano, Katerina Jalovcová as Pastuchyna, and Katerina Kneziková as Barena. This was more of a concert performance than many these days, with little interaction between the singers. Slashing of faces and slaughter of babies was missable, but a few more glances would not have gone amiss. Jirí Bélohlávek delved deep into the changing moods of the pieve, giving soloist and choir time and space to do their stuff. An impressive performance; and a welcome visit from this orchestra.