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spacer Sunnegårdh, Sjöberg, Tobiasson; Frank, Bäckström; Orchestra and Chorus of Malmö Opera, Ivanovic. Production: Phelan. ArtHaus 101 665, 121 mins., subtitled


In most of the audio recordings made of Jenůfa over the years, not all of the four principal roles are beautifully sung. Some singers, and perhaps some listeners, would say that fine singing is not the point of such an emotional opera, but in the present video recording, made at Sweden's Malmö Opera in 2011, all four principals sing admirably. (As a bonus, even elderly Grandmother Buryja, played by Ingrid Tobiasson, sings with fine tone.)

Swedish–American soprano Erika Sunnegårdh attracted attention at the Met in 2006, when she made a last-minute company debut as Leonore in a broadcast performance of Fidelio. She gives a fully rounded portrayal of Jenůfa, light and cool with her grandmother in the first scene, full of kindness for the wayward Števa but rising to great dignity as she gradually realizes how she will have to take care of herself. The early part of her dream scene in Act II is sweetly, girlishly sung, but she is clearly a mature woman by the end. Gitta-Maria Sjöberg, as the Kostelnička, is no one-dimensional villainess in voice or demeanor; this is one of the best-sung versions of this character on recordings. The strenuous tenor role of Laca seems hardly strenuous at all for Daniel Frank, a romantic, fine-toned singer. The role of Števa is a more forgiving vocal assignment for a tenor, and Joachim Bäckström seizes his chance.

There is, of course, a production attached to this excellent performance of the music. It is by and large a straightforward one, staged by Irish director Orpha Phelan and naturalistically acted with recognizable human behavior, albeit performed on an Expressionistic set by Leslie Travers. Grandmother really is peeling those potatoes, quite expertly. Phelan's stage direction takes particular care to make the stepdaughter–stepmother relationship multi-layered. Jenůfa is genuinely sympathetic to her stepmother's story that her husband beat her, and Jenůfa even takes care to warm Kostelnička's hands when she returns from the ghastly secret murder of Jenůfa's child. The different stories during the wedding in Act III — who was invited, who doesn't want to speak to whom — are neatly delineated. Only the last two minutes, when (apparently) Laca is contemplating the building of a new house with a developer, are a letdown. But even here, when the blistering orchestral climax is paired with the simple gesture of Laca putting his hand on Jenůfa's, there is still a musically astute image.

The camerawork, in a great service to music, does not call attention to itself. Also in service to music, conductor Marko Ivanovic shows skill at differentiating the "real" music from the "operatic" music. After Jenůfa learns of the death of her child, Ivanovic draws out the massed-strings lament with true dramatic instincts, and he finds a chamber-music element in this score that others have missed. After the performance, this fine Swedish team takes the most deferential, modest set of curtain calls on film. spacer 


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