Jenůfa by Leoš Janáček, October, 2017

POV Keynotes Newsletter

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A Revelation in Words & Music

This is music that speaks directly to the soul – that is Janáček's genius – and the only condition is to come with open ears and an open heart. My only encouragement is listen, listen, listen.
Jiří Bĕlohlávek, Czech Conductor

Atom Egoyan – internationally known director of film, theatre, and opera – is returning to his home town of Victoria to direct Pacific Opera Victoria's production of Jenůfa.

This is a work that Atom has called one of the best operas ever. In fact, Jenůfa is one of the reasons he first ventured into directing opera.

In a recent interview Atom recalled that in 1995 when Canadian Opera Company General Director Richard Bradshaw was trying to persuade him to direct Salome, seeing Jenůfa was one of the things that changed his mind. I saw the COC production and I went, 'That is one of the most powerful experiences I've had.' I'll never forget the feeling of it.

Atom is not alone in seeing Jenůfa as something truly extraordinary. Writer and critic David Nice says of it:

Janáček's lacerating music-drama of love-led sin and redemption ... is the opera I'd recommend as the first port of call for theatregoers wary of the genre. Its emotional truths are unflinching, its lyricism as constantly surprising as the actions of its characters are often swift and violent. In the opera house, I've never seen a performance that didn't turn its audience inside out.

How did this opera – composed by a middle-aged Moravian teacher – come to be considered one of the masterpieces of the 20th – or any – century?

It's in Czech, a language even more opaque than most opera languages. Its setting – a rural village livened with occasional moments of folkloric song and dance – is subverted by a bleak, harrowing story.

A sketch of the plot reads like the grimmest of Grimms' fairy tales: A young woman, abandoned by her lover, gives birth to a son. Her stepmother drugs the mother, takes the newborn babe and drowns him in an icy river. The young woman then agrees to marry her former lover's half brother, a man who out of jealousy had ruined her beauty by cutting her cheek. On their wedding day, the baby's body is found. The villagers threaten to stone the mother for murder, until the stepmother confesses her crime.

The opera is based on a play, Její pastorkyňa (Her Stepdaughter), by Gabriela Preissová, a contemporary of Janáček's, whose stories were, according to scholar Alfred Thomas, acutely political explorations of the plight of the rural poor and, in particular, of the difficult situation of women at the end of the nineteenth century – hardly typical opera fodder.

In fact Preissová was inspired to write her play by two actual incidents. In the first, a young man in love with his brother's sweetheart wounded her in the face. In the second, a woman helped her stepdaughter get rid of the fruits of her love. In Preissová's play the stepdaughter is innocent of the killing: I did not want to have two murderesses. Jenůfa falls through love, but she has enough goodwill and strength to live a better life.

There are clear echoes of late 19th century verismo in both play and opera. The story evokes the savagery and peril of daily life in a small Moravian village, a place rife with workaday tedium and claustrophobic social and family relations that play out through desire, jealousy, violence, and infanticide.

Yet as they navigate the complex tensions between passion and honour, morality and shame, each of the four central characters becomes far more interesting.

Each is flawed; each lives with guilt. Jenůfa has had a child out of wedlock; her feckless lover Števa has left her. His half brother Laca has disfigured her. And the stepmother, known only as the Kostelnička (the "Sacristan," who is the village's enforcer of spiritual propriety), has killed – not from malice but from deeply conflicted love and fear, in a desperate effort to save Jenůfa from shame and dishonour.

All four, in Jenůfa's words, have sinned out of love. There is, for all, remarkable, unlooked-for forgiveness.

This story of ordinary people, of violence and forgiveness, is dramatized with extraordinary passion, profound compassion, and absolutely stunning music.

The very first sound in the opera is a xylophone, its ominous hammering suggesting the incessant turning of the village mill wheel. This monotone rattle resurfaces throughout the first act. It captures the humdrum nature of daily life; ratchets up the tension as Laca sharpens his knife; hints at the rhythms of love, birth, and death that play out in the opera.

Janáček's score, at once lush and gritty, is an intriguing fusion of verismo and romanticism, layered with folk modalities and speech-inspired vocal lines. Its through-composed structure has few arias, yet is distinguished by soaring lyricism surrounded by obsessive rhythmic patterns that, as critic Michael Vaughn notes, anticipate the sonic cycling of minimalists like Glass and Adams by seventy years.

This is music that grabs at you. It is like a crucible, containing, just barely, the searing emotional intensity of this radiant, haunting, idiosyncratic opera. Musically and dramatically, it is – as Atom Egoyan points out – the best that music theatre can be.

Maureen Woodall


 

Obscure teacher by day, Renegade opera composer by night

The Musical Odyssey of Leoš Janáček

Leoš Janáček's creative life oddly straddles the 19th and 20th centuries. His training and inherited sound-world was that of the 19th; almost all his worthwhile compositions come from the 20th, where they sound thoroughly at home.
Janáček scholar John Tyrrell

Janáček was the son of a rural schoolmaster, and seemed destined by temperament and training to follow in his father's profession. Not until he was 25 did Janáček pursue musical studies outside of his native Northern Moravia, and these took him to Leipzig and Vienna, and to relatively conservative studios where he found himself mastering classical forms and techniques. Even after becoming a leading figure in the musical establishment in the Moravian capital of Brno, Janáček devoted much of his time to educational writing, to conducting provincial choruses and orchestras, and to earning his living as a schoolteacher. Relatively few compositions reached publication – these included choral and organ works (Janáček founded the Brno Organ School in 1881) as well as folk song arrangements.

As early as 1880, in a letter to his pupil and future wife Zdenka Schulzova, Janáček expressed frustration with the current state of his own compositions: I write them in an iron suit of armour – how long will I have to struggle with this repression of my true self?

The strict Austro-Germanic academic focus of his formal studies, combined with the inclination in cities such as Prague towards a cosmopolitan eclecticism, seemed to bring out in Janáček a spirit of fierce Czech nationalism, and a logical point of departure from convention was folk music and dance.

Folk song – I have lived in it since childhood, In folk song the entire man is enshrined, his body and soul, his milieu – everything. Folk song expresses the spirit of the pure individual and his God-given culture ... therefore I believe that as soon as our art-music originates from this popular source, we shall all become brethren ... folk song unites a people; it unites nations and mankind itself in one spirit of happiness and contentment. Thus Janáček addressed a London audience in 1926.

Decades earlier, in 1885, the composer had begun to collect the folk song of Moravia, Silesia, Velká, and Hukvaldy, and along with ethnomusicologist František Bartoš (1837-1908) edited a large number of Moravian folk songs which were then published as an anthology (Prague, 1901).

Unlike many 19th century composers who enriched their scores with borrowings from folk music, Janáček did not "adapt" the melodies to conventional tonal and rhythmical schemes. Instead, he scrupulously preserved their "peculiarities" – their modalism (modal harmony is still very much part of our culture because of folk and folk-based music), their unorthodox modulation, and their frequent changes of metre. As he experienced folk song ever more profoundly, Janáček was able to "clothe" it in his own music. The composer also studied the choreography and accompaniments of the various dance forms he encountered in the villages he visited.

One marked characteristic of folk music – certainly that of Eastern Moravia and Slovakia – is the repetition of certain words or short melodic phrases. Of course this is found in music of all places and during all periods, and is often a necessary structural component. But Janáček employs this device (for example in Jenůfa) to give heightened emphasis and psychological immediacy to a thought or a feeling in a way that is not possible in mere speech.

Another critical element in Janáček's evolution is the study of speech patterns and inflections he began in 1879, and the development of musical motives – "speech-motives" – that would characterize the phrasing and word-setting of his mature operas. The inflections of human speech and indeed of the voices of all creatures became to me a source of profound truth ... speech-motives are my windows into the soul, wrote Janáček in his memoirs.

The composer came to see speech motives as the basic building blocks of his vocal and dramatic music. When someone spoke to me, I did not always understand his words, he wrote, but I did understand the musical cadences of his speech. I knew at once whether that person lied or was inwardly agitated; sometimes, during a most ordinary conversation, I felt and indeed heard that my interlocutor was inwardly weeping.

In this context the importance of the composer's vernacular language cannot be overestimated. The Czech national revival that began in the early nineteenth century – and in which composers such as Bedřich Smetana, Antonín Dvořák, and, of course, Janáček himself are acknowledged as having played an indispensable part – started with the revival of the Czech language, which had been ruthlessly suppressed by the Austrian Habsburg Empire for two centuries. Thus the mature music of Janáček is intrinsically Czech, entwined with a language the composer's own in-laws considered fit only for servants.

Jenůfa is Janáček's first fully representative operatic masterpiece. After a gestation period of almost a decade, the work was given its première in Brno on January 21, 1904. The work was turned down by Prague, partly because the more urbane operatic community there was accustomed to the more fashionable fare of Puccini and Charpentier, and partly because of long-standing animosity between Janáček and Karel Kovařovic (1862-1920), the conductor at Prague's National Theatre. This did nothing to raise the self-esteem of a composer already in his fifties.

Finally, after twelve years of lobbying from Janáček's friends, Kovařovic accepted Jenůfa and conducted it to considerable acclaim in May 1916. However, Kovařovic insisted on reorchestrating the score of Jenůfa in a more traditionally romantic style as a condition of presenting it in Prague, and it was this version rather than the composer's that was heard around the world for about 70 years.

In fact it was not until 1996 that Sir Charles Mackerras and John Tyrrell published their revised edition of Jenůfa, which restored Janáček's original orchestration, making his striking, idiosyncratic score available for modern productions.

The international success of Jenůfa revitalized Janáček, who produced an abundance of masterpieces during the remaining twelve years of his life.

Robert Holliston


 

Creative Artists and Cast

Maquette for the stage set

As his body of work demonstrates, director Atom Egoyan is deeply attuned to the secrets and undercurrents of family relationships and the moral complexity that theatrical presentation can reveal so tellingly.

For Jenufa, he is working with production designer Debra Hanson, his longtime design partner, and with lighting designer Michael Walton to create a production expressive of the pull between modern and folk, of the ways that tradition, spirituality, and passion can tug at the human heart. The production is simple, yet shot through with bits of colour and radiance.

We welcome the return of soprano Lara Ciekiewicz for her debut in the title role of Jenůfa. Lara was a vibrant Nellie in our 2013 South Pacific in Concert, and returned last season as a very sympathetic Amelia in Simon Boccanegra.

Canadian-Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Emilia Boteva makes her POV debut and her role debut as the Kostelnička. Emilia has performed throughout Europe, in the U.S. and Mexico, and was recently seen as Brigitta in Calgary Opera's production of Die Tote Stadt.

Making his North American debut in the pivotal role of Laca is British tenor Colin Judson, who has performed with English National Opera, Glyndebourne, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, as well as with many European opera houses.

Making his POV debut as Števa is Texas-based tenor John Lindsey, who created the role of Jonathan Dale in the world première of Silent Night. He has performed with Minnesota Opera, Des Moines Metro Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre, and Cincinnati Opera, among others.

In the role of Karolka, Števa's new fiancée, we welcome Calgary-born mezzo Andrea Hill, who has sung with Calgary Opera as well as the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, Opéra National de Paris, and other European companies.

The cast includes many old friends of POV. Peter McGillivray (most recently seen as Dr. Bartolo in The Barber of Seville) is Stárek, with Lynne McMurtry (Emilia in Otello) as the Grandmother. Rebecca Hass, who was Mrs. Herring, Mrs. Noye, and Miss Baggott in our 2013 Britten Festival operas, returns as the Shepherdess.

Dion Mazerolle (Ferdinand in our 2004 The Tempest) is the Mayor; his wife is played by Maria Soulis, who was Flosshilde, one of the fetching Rhinemaidens in Das Rheingold. Rebecca Genge, fresh from her POV debut as Papagena in last season's The Magic Flute is Jano. The cast is rounded out by Emlyn Sheeley (Barena) and Chelsea Kutyn (the Aunt).

Chorus Master Giuseppe Pietraroia directs the POV Chorus, whose skills in singing and dancing, with the guidance of choreographer Melissa Young, will be a vital part of the spectacle – and yes, there is a surprising amount of toe-tapping music in the opera!

Timothy Vernon conducts the Victoria Symphony in this much anticipated company première of an extraordinary musical and theatrical masterpiece.

We're thrilled that Opéra de Montréal is our co-production partner for Jenůfa, following on very successful recent collaborations on Otello and Les Feluettes.


 

 

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