My last show in DC was Jenufa at the National Opera, with Patricia Racette in the title role and Catherine Malfitano as the Kostelnicka, and that casting should be enough to tell you it was a powerful evening. I love this opera and have never understood why those who respond to the powerful emotions and beautiful melodies of Puccini don’t respond to the same qualities in Janacek. This production was set in what looked to be the drab tatters of Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia, an atmosphere that captured the narrow world of prying eyes shown in the opera. The sets were mostly realistic with some stylized touches; I thought the finale intrusion of the villagers as the walls of Jenufa’s house opened up worked well, but the caricature of the Mayor’s wife as an easily shocked, overdressed provincial was a bit overdone, even for comic relief. Kim Begley was Laca, and I never would have thought he could look the part suitably on stage (I’ve always liked him vocally) but it’s amazing how a wig can change you.
I had heard Racette in the role here in SF a few years ago, and if I’m remembering that season right it was the only opera that wasn’t more or less a major disappointment. She brings emotional commitment and psychological detail to all of her performances; I’ve never been let down by her. She’s a good example of a performer who can make an easy transition to the looming age of digital close-ups; I once rode an elevator with her (my brushes with greatness and glamor!) and noticed that her features have a delicate beauty that gets lost over the orchestra pit. I had seen her as Cio-Cio-San last June, and since the last time I had seen Malfitano was in the same role, I had Butterfly on the brain. Madama Butterfly seems like a powerful figure out of myth, whereas Jenufa is very much a down-to-earth woman of a type who might live down the street; you get the feeling that she could so easily have a happy, normal life, which is what makes her story so wrenching as she deals with the damages of love. It’s her recognition of the love behind the damages, and her acceptance of love despite the damages, that gives this opera one of the few happy endings that I find totally convincing. Usually happy endings seem ironic, fake, or just a genre convention.
The Kostelnicka, looking like a black-clad tank, was a powerhouse as her certitude gave way to guilt over killing Jenufa’s child. Malfitano ended Act 2 with a terrifying cry at her hallucination of Death, first blasting out like trumpets, then dropping to spiky guttural fear. I rarely say this, but they should have had an intermission then rather than just dim the lights while the set was being changed for Act 3; if you’re going to break the mood, better to do so decisively. In her personal force and twisted sense of what love and propriety demands, the Kostelnicka is a good example of a type whose power and narrow sense of moral certainty kept order in the villages just a few generations ago. There were women like that in my own family: admirable in time of plague, but there isn’t always a plague and you can trace their rippling damage through the generations. Now there are other outlets for women with that kind of power, and people are anyway less inclined to bow to their inconvenient conventions, and as we slowly move away from the reality there’s a tendency to absurd sentimentality, as if women inherently wielded power with more wisdom and sensitivity than men. I wonder if, in a few generations, the Kostelnicka will be seen as an example of operatic extravagance, instead of a truthful portrayal of a type that once roamed and ruled the earth.