Review: Met's Revival of Janáček's 'Jenůfa' Highlights Karita Mattila

Tuesday, November 01, 2016 - 11:54 AM

Oksana Dyka in the title role and Karita Mattila as Kostelnička in Janáček's Jenůfa. (Photo by Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera)

There is an old saying in Hollywood that there are three stages in an actress's career — beautiful babe, corporate lawyer and Miss Daisy. The saying, while perhaps unfair, has parallels in opera. With plenty of voice and career mileage ahead, 56-year-old Karita Mattila jumped from babe to Daisy in Leoš Janáček's Jenůfa, with maybe a year between the two. This was accomplished not out of default, but out of interest.

Her characterization of Jenůfa's tormented stepmother Kostelnicka is the talk of Metropolitan Opera circles, and could well become a signature role for her. The Met's revival of Jenůfa runs through Nov. 17, and one would like to report that it is a bit sturdier than it is. But even with the Act III illness of Daniel Brenna in the role of Laca on Monday (replaced very capably by Garrett Sorenson), Mattila wasn't the only selling point. She had good dramatic counterpoint from the 73-year-old Wagner veteran Hanna Schwarz, who has gone beyond the Miss Daisy stage in the role of the grandmother.

Kostelnicka's main dilemma is how to deal with her stepdaughter Jenůfa having a child out of wedlock in their Moravian village where people tend to get drunk and do the wrong things. The plot mechanism is such that Kostelnicka is partly responsible, having scotched a marriage that would've saved the situation. Yet for all of her religious severity, she decides that a life of disgrace can be avoided by leaving Jenůfa's baby out in the winter cold, with her angst amplified by moments of sympathetic pain when she feels the child dying.

Having tried out the role in two other cities, Mattila brings vocal details to the character's declamatory moments that are rarely heard. High notes are nailed rather than fudged. And the more notes that are heard, the more Janáček's character comes into sharper focus. Though the Mattila voice has often described as having a Nordic cool, she can use it with great warmth, bursts of which are heard here and there, reminding you that Kostelnicka was once young and vulnerable — and still is underneath her untreated PTSD. That perspective is one of the more distinctive elements Mattila brings to the part, showing not just what she is, but what she was. Both with her physical stance and ability to shade her vocal lines with the colorful range available to a singer still in her prime, Mattila charts how her character is crumbling from within. 

How iffy is the rest? The accepting wisdom projected by Schwarz creates a telling contrast to Kostelnicka contemplating the wreckage of her future. Schwarz sounds her age, but she is supposed to. At the opposite end of the scale is the Jenůfaof Oksana Dyka, who shows what lust lurks behind her good-girl persona. In more lyrical passages, she seems like a different, vocally lush singer — the lack of integration suggesting that she is still finding her way into her role. Among the men, Joseph Kaiser is a vocally excellent Steva (the drunk who abandons Jenůfa).

The orchestra is almost as important here as in Wagner, and was in good hands with conductor David Robertson, who finds a more firm through line amid the score's cinematic shifts in color and manner — suggesting the music looks backward to Smetana more than forward to the composer's later From the House of the Dead. The symbolism of the Olivier Tambosi production, with its clean lines and huge Act II center-stage rock representing how the characters are caught between that and a hard place, hasn't aged so well Perhaps the biggest theatrical problem is the staging, which isn't specifically credited in the program and is clumsy in all the key places. Such impediments weren't serious, but couldn't be ignored. 

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Comments [1]

CastaDiva from New York, NY

The Met’s Jenufa is wonderful! The three women, Grandmother Buryja, the Kostelnicka, and the Jenufa of the title role, were all splendid, although Dyka could have shown more vulnerability as the hard done by Jenufa; that aside, Dyka has an impressive voice, with beautiful phrasing and soaring top notes. Mattila was a fine Kostelnicka. I did not find Schwarz’s voice lacking, and found her mezzo to have a rich, warm, sound. Both tenors, Brenna and Kaiser, who sang the roles of Laca and Steva respectively (throughout the opera in last night’s performance), were marvelous, both singing with clarion sound, their voices contrasting nicely as their very different character traits required. All the peripheral roles were strong, too, esp. Bradley Garvin as the foreman and Richard Bernstein as the Mayor.

The Met Orchestra, as usual, shone, simply shone, every section of it, this time under the baton of David Robertson, and Janacek’s music sounded glorious.
The sets, thankfully, did not offend; Acts 1 and 3 took place outdoors, Act 1 with tiers of color: a bright blue sky, below, a row of golden crops, and below that, the green grassy ground, whereas in Act 3, with its intimations of disaster, the colors were less cheerful. Act 2, which took place in the Kostelnicka’s bedroom, was in muted shades of chromatic greys. It had the large rock referred to in the review above, the rock serving as a screen behind which the grim events of the Act take place: the drugging of Jenufa and the Kostelnicka’s abduction of Jenufa’s child towards drowning it.

I liked the sets, which were marred only by the lateral black screens on either side of the stage, presumably to diminish its size, although I do not see the purpose, since this is not an opera which calls for a small, intimate space.

This is a memorable, truly wonderful Jenufa, and kudos to the Met for presenting it with such a fine cast.

Nov. 13 2016 11:50 AM

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