The Deutsche Oper Berlin Unveils A Stark, Post-Modern 'Jenufa' : NPR FM Berlin Blog Leoš Janácek's "Jenufa," currently playing at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, is a work of great psychological complexity despite its naturalist setting of Moravian peasant life.
NPR logo The Deutsche Oper Berlin Unveils A Stark, Post-Modern 'Jenufa'

The Deutsche Oper Berlin Unveils A Stark, Post-Modern 'Jenufa'

Leos Janacek's "Jenufa" is showing now at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Monika Ritterhaus/Deutsche Oper Berlin hide caption

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Monika Ritterhaus/Deutsche Oper Berlin

Leoš Janácek's "Jenufa," a work of great psychological complexity despite its naturalist setting of Moravian peasant life, has struggled to meet with appreciation since it made its 1904 premiere in Brno.

It was Erich Kleiber who gave the opera its German breakthrough at Berlin's Staatsoper Unter den Linden in 1924, the same year in which "Jenufa" premiered at the Met to mostly unfavorable criticism.

The reception in the German capital ranged from praise for the work's fresh sincerity to bourgeois contempt.

"The music arrives at the performers not like insolent, urbane, lascivious opera music but as the earth's answer to the deep musical sensibility of the people, in keeping with their own ways of life," wrote the Berliner Börsen-Courier, while the newspaper of the Social Democratic Party reported about "the score's monotony for voice and instrument" and the lack of "healthy farmers' eroticism."

Janácek's integration of everyday speech patterns from his native countryside and raw motivic development may seem less shocking today, as does the exposure of chilling social realities from life at a mill. Yet if the Deutsche Oper's new production of "Jenufa" is any indication, the opera still remains subject to underestimation. The stage director, Christof Loy, in his Berlin debut, opts for a sterile, disaffected tone that eschews the intricate human elements of the story.

In the program notes, Loy describes Jenufa's stepmother, who takes it upon herself to kill her daughter's illegitimate child, as someone who has been hardened by difficult life circumstances and cannot love. As seen at the premiere on March 4, however, she comes across as cardboard, occasionally manic and, at best, repressed.

The most troubling passage occurs in the opening scene, when the stepmother (Jennifer Larmore) stands motionless in a black skirt suit while Jenufa, her grandmother and her determined suit or Lacado their chores (in Janacek's libretto, the grandmother is peeling potatoes; in this production, she enters carrying a bucket in pumps). Until Larmore sings her first line, she appears to be a soulless, bureaucratic doppelganger.

If Loy intends to poke fun at a house aesthetic most conspicuously visible in an ad campaign designed by Woolfgang Joop, the gag quickly loses appeal. The set design by Dirk Becker, a white-washed rectangular space to which the smartly-dressed yuppies remain confined with glimpses of a half-dead cornfield in the background, is as monotone as Loy's direction.

He achieves some poignancy in highly dramatic scenes, such as when Laca slashes Jenufa's cheek in frustration at her unrequited love, yet more often the dynamic range is perplexity limited. When the handsome yet feckless Stevadrops by to visit Jenufa, not knowing that she has borne his son, the stepmother clamors after him like an overgrown child, only to leave the two characters lurching over on opposite sides of the stage. After the stepmother breaks down at the end of the second act, the curtain closes to Jenufa and Stevagazing surreality, yet dispassionately, in opposite directions.

Despite a strong cast, the evening struggled to surmount the stifling glare of the production. Authentic Czech diction was also lacking in the absence of a single native speaker on stage (the Slovakian Jana Kurucová in the role of the servant girl comes closest). Will Hartmann, with a powerful, ringing tenor and magnetic physical presence, was the standout of the evening as Laca.

It is somewhat surprising that Steva was cast with the lighter, less memorable tenor Joseph Kaiser, although he executed the role in fine form and proved himself perfectly amiable in character. As Jenufa, the Berlin native Michaela Kaune brought a plush, expansive voice to the role, easily evoking her anguish and innocence despite some strained high notes in the final scene, yet her stage presence was underwhelming.

Larmore's wide vocal palette of timbre and emotional dynamic was used to moving effect, but she was needless to say constrained by Loy's direction. In the role of the grandmother, Hanna Schwarz's cutting mezzo-soprano was a high point of the evening. The supporting cast left little to be desired, particularly with Martina Welschenbach as Karolka, the mayor's daughter who is to marry Steva, and Stephen Bronk as the mayor.

Music Director Donald Runnicles led the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper in a bold performance with particular emphasis on sculpting the score's motivic structure, yet it lacked sufficient dynamic nuance, particularly in folkloristic colored passages. The charged phrasing which makes Runnicles' Wagner so effective cried out for a lilting approach more in keeping with the Slavic rhythms.

The chorus of the Deutsche Oper delivered its role admirably, with the female number "Ej, mamko" in the final act providing one of the least alienating moments of the production. Costumes for the girls by Judith Weihrauch departed from the predominant aesthetic to evoke the rustic yet elegant charm of Janácek's original setting.

'Jenufa' runs through April 24.