JAN¡?EK: Jen?fa

But at the Dorothy Chandler, the Los
Angeles Opera chose to commence their season with two unquestionable
masterpieces of darker colors, less likely to be thought of as
“crowd-pleasers.” Beethoven’s Fidelio premiered first, with a
stunning cast of relatively new names (Anja Kampe and Klaus Florian Vogt).

On September 27th Jan·?ek’s Jen?fa opened, with the great and
glorious Karita Mattila in the lead. Seen at the second performance on
Sunday, 30 September, Oliver Tambosi’s now well-traveled production provided
a reliable if not exactly memorable staging for a high-powered musical
success. Music Director James Conlon appeared again at the pre-lecture (as is
very much his wont), to speak with revivalist passion about the merits of
Janacek’s opera, now over a century old and yet still not quite beloved
enough to make such urgent declarations of merit unnecessary. But as Conlon
said, once the audience is in the house for a performance, the opera makes
its own case, and better than any speaker can.

Sunday’s performance certainly won over the matinee crowd. At intermission
some members spoke admiringly about the dramatic vocals, while wondering
about the significance of Tambosi’s core concept: a boulder breaking through
the ground in act one, crowding the stage in act two, and broken into rocks
and stones for the final act. As the beautiful Jen?fa hides in her
step-mother’s house, scarred by her frustrated admirer Laca and recovering
from the delivery of the child she produced with the handsome scoundrel
äteva, she cries out that she feels as if a stone is crushing her.
Apparently that one line provided for Tambosi his entry into the heart of the
drama, but when the boulder becomes the primary visual reference, the literal
depiction of the metaphor reduces the complexity of the drama, rather than
supporting it. The tension of act two, at any rate, certainly does not
benefit from giving some of the less serious members of the audience the
temptation to giggle, as characters feel their way around the huge boulder in
their living room.

But the roar of adulation that greeted the singers and conductor Conlon at
the end of the afternoon proved that even the questionable qualities of
Tambosi’s setting could not lessen the impact of this performance. Mattila
owns the title role, and she remains in her glorious prime. An athletic
performer, she could subtly suggest Jen?fa’s youth just through her posture,
while incautiously throwing herself around the stage in the dynamic second
act. Then in the third, after her almost hysterical outburst at the discovery
of the body of her child (murdered by her step-mother in a desperate bid to
save her stepdaughter from a shamed and lonely life), Mattila projected a
wise and loving forgiveness, even standing stock still. Her singing
approached the flawless, with only one high climax finding her reaching up a
bit tentatively. Tambosi’s set does have the virtue of high walls,
intersecting at the rear, which projects the voices out into the huge space
of the Dorothy Chandler. Mattila had the power when she needed it, and could
pull back into shades of detail as needed. She is, quite simply, an
astounding artist.

As the step-mother Kostelni?ka, Eva Urbanov· came through where it
mattered most, in the powerhouse histrionics of act two. Not the actress that
Mattila is, Urbanov· nevertheless has the sort of edgy, penetrating vocal
production perfect for the role, and her commitment helped make the audience
understand both the cruel reasoning behind her decision to kill her stepchild
and the ability of Jen?fa to forgive her.

The plain but honest quality of Kim Begley’s voice perfectly suits the
character of Laca, as does his masculine appearance, which contrasts well
with the boyish but callow handsomeness of Jorma Silvasti’s äteva. Silvasti
was a late replacement for the young tenor Joseph Kaiser, who took a prime
assignment at the Metropolitan. Perhaps this change was just as well, as the
trip of Mattila, Begley, and Silvasti made a convincing assembly of peers,
all of approximately the same age and all well experienced in their roles.

The LAO orchestra has not played a Jan·?ek score for well over a decade,
and Conlon has some more work to do to make the players fully comfortable
with the spiky idiom of the composer. With Conlon’s impassioned leadership,
Sunday’s performance still had all the power needed, especially for the
heart-tugging lyrical outburst at the climax. Act one, however, felt a bit

So after two very successful productions of Fidelio and this
Jen?fa, LAO will return to the tried and true with productions of
Don Giovanni and Puccini’s ubiquitous Bohemians, under other
conductors. Conlon returns in the 2008 half of the season, with Tristan
und Isolde
, Otello, and this season’s edition of Conlon’s
“Recovered Voices” series, a double-bill of Zemlinsky and Ullman one-acts.
All in all, LAO can’t compete with the Met for star-power or technical
innovation, but when it comes down to the actual performance, the company may
never have been better.

Chris Mullins

image_description=Karita Mattila (Photo by: Robert Millard )
product_title=Leoö Jan·?ek: Jen?fa
Los Angeles Opera, 30 September 2007
product_by=Above: Karita Mattila (Photo by: Robert Millard)