The Lyric’s current B opera is an interesting one largely due to the immense talent of the performers as they attack Leos Janacek’s unique score that breaks out of late Romanticism into its own modern shape. Firmly anchored by Lise Davidsen as Jenufa, this mess of a story based on Gabriela Preissova’s play, unfolds in a small Moravian village in the late 1800s and involves a love triangle, secret pregnancy, infanticide, and justice.
Attacking the innovative and demanding score with gusto, Davidson handles the tricky compositions with grace and power, including the many times when the orchestra drops out leaving her to finish or begin a musical phrase all on her own. This is one of Janacek’s many tricks that he uses to great effect in this opera.
Janacek really is pushing the boundaries of traditional harmony and rhythm in this score. He employs speech-like rhythms that mimic the natural inflections of the Czech language throughout. The recitatives have an almost improvisatory feel, while the arias and ensembles are built on short, repetitive melodic fragments, which is almost maddening for the listener, because as soon as you think you have a melody to hang your hat on, he changes it and moves to the next musical idea. While this gives the music an urgency, it makes you long for just one traditional aria or a melody to remember.
Some of Janacek’s best work is saved for the orchestra, especially the violins. While you’re mostly concentrating on the singing and the odd bits where it’s acapella, every once in a while, there will be a violin line so exquisite that it grabs your full attention. But the music is mostly like listening to a really well-composed modernist movie soundtrack rather than an opera. There’s tons of drama in both musical lines and instrument selection, but again, no melody to hang your hat on.
Janacek was Moravian and used this, his first opera, to give a window into that tight-knit and insular world of small villages, local gossip, private shame, and mundane sins. In doing so, he created a bunch of people that are not particularly likeable. You have some pity for Jenufa for the way she’s used as a pawn for the two main male characters, wonderfully sung by Richard Trey Smagur as love-them-and-leave-them Steva, the father of Jenufa’s illegitimate child, and Pavel Cernoch as Laca, her weirdo stalker who scars her face.
But other than that, everyone is either mundane or reprehensible. I didn’t really care what happened to them, but I was very impressed by everyone’s incredible singing of this non-melodic, difficult music. None more so than Nina Stemme as Kostelnicka, Jenufa’s actually wicked stepmother, who murders Jenufa’s baby to save the family from shame and so she can hand Jenufa off to stalker Laca after Steva decides he doesn’t want scarred Jenfua now that she was no longer beautiful. That’s legit all we see of their entire relationship. The baby is a done deed before the opera starts and so we see no courting or wooing from Steva. Jenufa tells us how much she loves him, but we don’t see any relationships. It’s all exposition and the story is worse for that. People wander about declaring their love from opposite sides of the stage and nobody has any chemistry.
And the staging of this was equally problematic. I actively felt sorry for set designer Michael Levine because it the set looks basically like someone said, “what can you do with furniture we have backstage, beds we stole from a 19th Century orphanage and these pallets we found lying around behind Home Depot.” The entire show takes place in a white slat box with said minimal furniture.
Couple that with the Moravian costumes of everyone wearing stark black dresses until the wedding scene and it’s an absolutely monochrome and dull production, there’s very little of interest to look at. Which does keep the focus on the performances and singing, which deserves all praise.
It is visually dull but sonically superb, like so many of Lyric’s also-ran operas. But I can’t praise the singing enough and I would love to see all of these singers again in something else. And the wonderful orchestral moments truly were wonderful. This is a musician’s show.
Photos by Michael Brosilow