Czech It Out

There are only a handful of operas that, when everything works smoothly, can hit you like the MetroRail meeting an SUV. Czech composer Leos Janácek's 20th-century masterpiece about small-town life and morals, Jenufa, is one such powerhouse. I would urge you to go and see it, but in the case of Houston Grand Opera's production, I need to rephrase: Go and hear it! On that level, it will not disappoint.

Co-produced with Washington Opera and English National Opera, this interpretation of Jenufa is a prime example of that outmoded operatic mise en scène known as "Euro-trash," in which the director's vision tramples the composer's. Last season's Ariodante also springs to mind; it's no coincidence that Jenufa director David Alden was the culprit there, too.

Euro-trash staging requires the following: 1) leather in any form; 2) sexual shenanigans among uncomfortable principals; 3) mismatched costumes from a variety of eras and cultures; 4) a set design that includes something broken -- usually Ionic pillars or gigantic statues, especially in the works of Handel or Mozart; 5) unnatural lighting, as if a backstage electrician tripped and pulled out a plug at an inopportune moment; and 6) characters doing things on stage that no human you've ever known would do. I could go on, but you get the point. It's all supposed to represent some psychological truth inherent in the work that only the director sees, but most of the time, it just comes off as obvious and goofy -- as well as at odds with the wishes of the composer/librettist. Opera, that most sublime art form, has suffered under this revisionist, conceited approach for a good many years. No one seems in any hurry to put a stop to it, though.



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Poor Jenufa has her share of trash. Jenufa's love interest, bad boy Steva -- you know he's no good because he smokes and swigs vodka out of the bottle -- makes his entrance on a motorcycle in full leather drag and proceeds to roll around the stage floor with the trampy mayor's daughter. The mill he's inherited has the requisite broken windows and rusted exterior. The home of Jenufa's stepmother, Kostelnicka, is all peeling wallpaper and Cabinet of Dr. Caligari angles and has windows covered in inexplicable cardboard. The costumes, like the production design, are Soviet politburo-drab, except for the outfits of the village maidens, who arrive to serenade Jenufa on her wedding day dressed like outcasts from Heidi.

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Whom Jenufa will marry, and when, is much of the opera's focus. Jenufa is a piercing drama, genuine and heartfelt. There's enough drama in it for a dozen operas: unwanted pregnancy, jealousy, disfigurement, infanticide, sibling rivalry, society's repressive restrictions, mother-daughter conflict -- and yet it's most tender and forgiving, and bursts forth at its conclusion with resplendent hope.

In this production, once you stop squinting from the '50s communist realism, the delights begin, thanks to Janácek's unfailing musical tapestry and the exceptional cast, under the masterly conducting of Dennis Russell Davies. Janácek's individualistic glimmering textures and spiky intervals have never sounded so glossy, inviting or natural. This opera, like his other works, intensifies as it progresses, here helped along by the story, which is based upon the sensational 1890 play by Czech playwright Gabriela Preissová. The music has a refreshing, no-nonsense quality about it, a purity that suits the bucolic setting and the mundane lives made extraordinary.

Sopranos Patricia Racette as Jenufa and Catherine Malfitano as her imperious stepmother, Kostelnick, give riveting performances in these showstopping roles. So do Raymond Very as beefy playboy Steva, Judith Cristin as Jenufa's reproving grandmother and Czech tenor Stefan Margita as Laca, Jenufa's lover from afar, whose ringing tenor in his HGO debut brought down the house opening night.

Racette never disappoints, and in this work, her dramatic and vocal gifts resound. Jenufa is much put-upon and rather passive in the story; things happen to her. Except for her pregnancy, she doesn't really do anything. Steva rejects her, Laca slashes her face with a knife, her stepmother drugs her and spirits away her newborn to drown him in the river. All she wants is to be happy. "I had very different hopes for my life," Jenufa plaintively sings. Racette supplies the role with fortitude and intelligence, and her wrenching "Prayer to the Virgin" shows her character's strengths and nobility of heart. Currently, she's one of opera's greatest assets, and she shines in this role.

The part of stepmother Kostelnicka, like Herodias in Salome, is great for scenery-chewing and is usually assigned to sopranos slightly past their prime. This time, though, the casting is dead on, with Malfitano at the height of her considerable powers singing the role for the first time in her career. She's not the remote, icy paragon portrayed by most interpreters; in fact, she seems but a slightly older version of Jenufa herself. Kostelnicka knows what's going on with her stepdaughter and what it means to have opportunities mislaid. She may be looked upon as the village's moral barometer, but Malfitano gives her warmth and appeal, along with kick-in-the-teeth drama.

By the time Jenufa hit the big time, Janácek was 62. It had taken him nine years to compose and another 12 until the Prague premiere that catapulted this provincial organ teacher and theoretician into the master ranks. When you hear this haunting opera, you realize it was worth the wait.

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