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Solomon: SFO’s ‘Jenufa’ Is Gripping Theater

on August 13, 2019 - 8:08pm
Laura Wilde (Jenůfa) with Richard Trey Smagur (Števa Buryja). Photo by Ken Howard for The Santa Fe Opera
For the Los Alamos Daily Post

Forewarned is forearmed, they say, and perhaps my foreknowledge of Jenůfa’s tragic plot helped me avoid shock and dismay to proceed directly to unabashed appreciation of this beautiful work. The Santa Fe Opera’s first production of Janacek’s 1904 opus has brought the action forward to Cold War era, Charles Edwards’ sets and Jon Morrell’s costumes reflecting the sere, colorless aesthetic of mid-century Czechoslovakia behind the Iron Curtain. Jenůfa herself alone is in a fitted, past-the-knee length sheath of sky blue under a lavender bolero sweater in Act I, the only splash of beauty on a barren stage amongst a cast in black, grey, and muddy brown.

But here is your first warning: Jenůfa, already pregnant, is forbidden by her (step) mother to marry her drunken boyfriend Števa until he has stayed sober a full year. He leaves, promising to remain faithful; but the boy-next-door Laca, mad with jealousy, tries to claim her himself, and lashes out when she refuses him, cutting her face to prove that Števa loves only her beauty.

Act II bears this out, with Jenůfa, “gone to Vienna”, bearing a son in hiding. Mother Kostelnicka drugs her, and while she is sleeping, receives a visit from Števa, who refuses both to marry the disfigured Jenůfa or even to see the child. Kostelnicka ponders their disgrace, and convinces herself to embrace the ultimate solution: “I’ll send the boy back to the Lord!”. She takes the child out into the cold, and returns alone to find Jenůfa praying for her missing baby. After telling her the child has died and Števa has refused to marry her, Jenůfa gives in to Laca’s repeated proposal.

The spring thaw comes in Act III, with the dead baby released from under the ice just as the wedding is about to take place. When Jenůfa recognizes her son, the villagers accuse her of murder, but Laca defends her, and Kostelnicka suddenly admits her guilt. In a miracle of forgiveness, Jenůfa grants it to both her mother and Laca, with whom she faces the future afresh.

The music is beautiful, at once lyrical and modern, and the singers are uniformly marvelous. Particularly the three women, Jenůfa (2012 apprentice Laura Wilde), Kostelnicka (the divine Patricia Racette, a famous Jenůfa in her own right), and Grandmother Buryjovka (Susanne Mentzer) are all marvelous, and a joy to listen to. Australian tenor Alexander Lewis as Laca and Georgia boy Richard Trey Smagur as Števa shine vocally if not ethically in their SFO debuts, the latter a 2017 apprentice. And the good news is, all the voices could be heard! It can be done! Bravo to German conductor Johannes Debus, joining us from the Canadian Opera Company, who successfully balanced the large, romantic orchestra to the instruments on stage. Let’s hope Boheme conductor Italian Jader Bignamini learns this lesson sooner rather than later!

Most of all, this production is gripping theater, that flies by without dragging, and tells the archetypal story in beautiful music, performed by masterful singing actors (unhindered by presumptuous, preposterous direction) that make you care about their characters immediately and continually. There is no language barrier when the Opera is really doing their job!

‘Jenůfa’ plays at 8 p.m. Aug. 15. Don’t miss this chance to experience a too-rarely heard 20th century masterpiece, if you can tolerate the all-too-real-life tragedy of a patriarchal society which condemns women for reproduction, while excusing and even rewarding men for assault and abandonment (a common theme in opera). Will we ever learn?