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Janáček: Jenůfa

DVD Button Kaune, Larmore, Schwarz; Hartmann, Elgr. Orchestra and Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Runnicles. Production: Loy. ArtHaus Musik 1009069, 131 mins., subtitled

Recordings Jenufa Cover 1215

THERE WAS NO SOUND at all for almost two minutes at the beginning of Christof Loy’s 2014 staging of Jenůfa at Deutsche Oper Berlin. Instead of music, we observe a woman in black silently ushered into a sterile white room. If you know the opera, you can deduce that this is the Kostelnicka (the village sacristan) serving her sentence for the horrific crime at the center of the drama, and that the story will now unfold as a flashback. Well, okay, but it’s a long time to wait for the music!

Fortunately, things pick up from there. Loy’s conceit implicitly turns this Jenůfa into the Kostelnicka’s opera, and mezzo Jennifer Larmore, a versatile, charismatic powerhouse, seizes the challenge. Ever youthful and magnetic, Larmore almost seems more like Jenůfa’s worldlier, more assertive older sister than her stepmother. In a role that almost demands to be shrieked, Larmore achieves startling vocal and dramatic intensity without ever sacrificing the intrinsic beauty of her resplendent, crystal-clear mezzo. The result is a fully fleshed, three-dimensional Kostelnicka, who manipulates others with charm and persuasion as opposed to cold-blooded, brute force domination. Larmore’s multilayered portrayal brings out the best in everyone around her.

Michaela Kaune, as Jenůfa,elicits our immediate empathy with a warm, gently glowing soprano that retains its beauty and agility throughout the character’s wide vocal range. Kaune’s sweetness and sensitivity in the first act makes her disfigurement all the more heartbreaking, and she’s convincing throughout the dizzying emotional zigzags of Act II’s monologue and prayer. In the final ten minutes, Janáček’s astonishing musical representation of the transcendent power of forgiveness, Kaune is once again superb in her noble willingness to give up Laca, the only person she has left.  

Kaune has decent stage chemistry with tenor Ladislav Elgr’s frustratingly irresponsible Steva, although Elgr is more emotionally raw in his volatile Act II scene with Larmore, of whom he seems genuinely terrified. As Laca, Will Hartmann has a vibrant, ringing tenor and a commanding physical presence. Hartmann can turn rapidly from hot-headed to vulnerable, and he adds an extra dose of vocal intensity in pivotal passages, as in his final scene with Kaune, when he declares that he will stand by Jenůfa despite the consequences. The glorious closing instrumental-swell that follows is just one of the many high points for the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, under the seasoned, unerring leadership of Donald Runnicles. That white cell, designed by Dirk Becker, turns out not to be a bad setting for Jenůfa’s high drama—it strips the opera down to the bare essentials of its passionate, tormented characters and its gorgeous, roiling score. —Joshua Rosenblum 

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