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JANÁČEK: Jenůfa

CD Button G. James, Reinhard, Vermillion; Briscien, Vejzovič, McShane. Graz Philharmonic Orchestra, Kaftan. Oehms Classics OC 962 (2)

Recordings Jenufa Cover 116

WHAT MAKES AN OPERA truly great? This new Jenůfa, recorded live in Graz, brings the complicated topic into focus a little more clearly. It's possible to admire what Elisabeth Söderström, Gabriela Beňačková and Karita Mattila each have done in the title role, and only later realize that they did quite different things. It's possible to admire how Charles Mackerras and František Jílek each conducted the opera, and only later realize how different they were from each other. The piece almost always "works," and it does so again here, even though soprano and conductor have yet again other ideas. 

As Jenůfa, Gal James might at first seem not to offer a great variety of address, but in fact this turns out to be a subtle performance, one not made of obvious "moments." There's a nobility in what she does, to a surprising degree in the frantic outbursts of Act II. And Dirk Kaftan, conducting the Graz Philharmonic, has his own ideas about the shifting power dynamics of the characters in Act II. He is also quite adept in the sly entrance and exit of the chorus in Act I. If Jílek is more interested in the folk elements of the score, if Mackerras offers a crackling orchestral texture that seems rooted in the Czech language as the thought processes of the characters course through the music, Kaftan is convincing on his own more abstract terms. Gal and Kaftan are disappointing only in the final few minutes of the opera, when this Jenůfa's unusually tentative bidding of the Kostelnička to rise, an interesting acting choice at first, is maintained too far into the ensuing duet, and Kaftan's orchestra never really catches the renewed life pulse presented in the music. It's an empty triumph, rather than a hard-earned one.

As the Kostelnička, Iris Vermillion is as fastidious about her vocalism as the character is about her housekeeping, barring some chancy moments above the staff. The Laca, Aleš Briscein, winnows the path of the character into eventual simple decency in Act III, but the Števa, Taylan Reinhard, sounds too old and unremittingly nasty. The role of Grandmother Buryja is lovingly written for an older singer. Here Dunja Vejzovič (Kundry in the famous Karajan Parsifal recording as long ago as 1979) sings it with honor. The Mill Foreman, David McShane, makes more of his role than anyone I've ever heard. Jenůfa offers a principal role for the concertmaster. In this stage production she was put onstage, and Fuju Iwaki plays with assertive, soloistic response. 

Perhaps because of whatever was going on onstage, pauses and silences in the audio recording are not always musically engaging, and the libretto prints Czech and German texts but no English. But the power of Jenůfa, a deeply Christian opera in which music and text admirably capture the perils of believing the best of people, the difficulties and rewards of forgiveness, and the sadly unquestioned expectation of a closed society, is once again undimmed.  —William R. Braun 

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