Theater Reviews

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Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Through Oct. 13

Leos Janacek's opera "Jenufa" has become one of grand opera's leading populist works by virtue of the fact that it deals with the tragedies of people who are not all that grand; in fact, they're riddled with human flaws.

Before he ventured into opera, the composer had been absorbed in transmogrifying the language of his Moravian folk tradition into the sound patterns of his music. He vigorously eschewed the speech patterns of the rich and famous, and the poetry of high-flying literary stylists, succeeding in keeping it real, and in Czechoslovakian, itself not a common opera language. Although this isn't folk music, it's definitely about just folks.

Jenufa (Karita Mattila), the eponymous heroine, is a small-town girl, stepdaughter of the local sacristan, Kostelnicka (Eva Urbanova). She's caught up in that most common of young women's problems: a slight case of pregnancy without benefit of clergy, brought on by Steva (Jorma Silvasti), the philandering mill owner, even though it's Laca (Kim Begley), Steva's less glamorous stepbrother, who truly loves her.

The ungallant and usually drunken Steva is content with throwing money at the problem and going on his careless way, while Stepmom convinces Laca that this is his chance to get the girl of his dreams without, of course, telling him about Jenufa's little secret. When Laca discovers the truth, he angrily disfigures Jenufa. The baby is born in sin, and the keeper of the town's morality, Kostelnicka, comes up with her own demonic solution to all their uneasy situations, eventually copping to her own sin.

The stunning Mattila is in excellent voice as the unfortunate Jenufa; she has a rich, unwavering soprano that flows strongly with the surging music, carrying to the top of the house and to the heart of her character's despair. In her voice, sorrow shares the same shelf as joy. As Kostelnicka, Urbanova builds on her own notices; the audience journeys from seriously hating the moralizing mentor to pitying and being doubtfully hopeful for her redemption.

Rich tenors Begley and Silvasti make the right kind of music as the antithetical half-brothers. Elizabeth Bishop is as disapprovingly ominous as a black crow of disparagement in the role of Grandmother Buryja, the retired owner of the mill. In an opera with no show-stopping arias but some uplifting choruses, Grant Gershon's chorus mastering is beyond grand.

The naturalism of the language, and the fact that the music isn't in a generally accepted opera voice, lend a different sound to the orchestra and to the singing. In keeping with the dramatic passion of the piece, it manages to be bleak, tender, compassionate, searing, heart-rending and authentic, all at the same time. Because Janacek's music hews so closely to the rhythm of his folk language, a very real emotion is key to the different sound. It is to be noted that the composer was going through a very difficult time in his own life while writing "Jenufa." Conductor James Conlon, with his increasingly magical baton, draws out every tear, every grim nuance, all its power and its towering strength from the superbly balanced and responsive Los Angeles Opera Orchestra.

With all the great music, performances and emotional nuances comes a question voiced by many in the opening-night audience. "Director Olivier Tambosi and designer Frank Philipp Schlossmann: What about that set?" The opening was apropos, but what about that huge prehistoric rock that centered the stage for the rest of the act? No stage furniture, nothing to indicate location, just a huge, ungainly presence with what began to look like monster eyes staring out at the audience. (Was it left over from "Grendel"?) Why the huge time lapse from a Moravian small town in the 19th century to the Flintstones' campus? It makes no sense.

JENUFA
Presented by Los Angeles Opera
Credits:
Composer-librettist: Leos Janacek
Based on the play "Jeji Pastorkyna" (Her Stepdaughter) by: Gabriela Preissova
Conductor: James Conlon
Director: Olivier Tambosi
Set designer: Frank Philipp Schlossmann
Original lighting designer: Max Keller
Lighting designer: Brian Gale
Los Angeles Opera concert master: Stuart Canin
Los Angeles Opera associate conductor/chorus master: Grant Gershon
Cast:
Grandmother Buryja: Elizabeth Bishop
Steva Buryja: Jorma Silvasti
Laca Klemen: Kim Begley
Kostelnicka: Eva Urbanova
Jenufa: Karita Mattila
Jano: Lori Ann Fuller
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