Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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It's not You, It's Me

July 10, 2009

Eva-Maria Westbroek and Pavel Cernoch
Photo: Wifried Hösl/Bayerische Staatsoper 2009

I hate to admit it, but if I’m being completely honest (not always my best quality) I was not jazzed by Thursday’s performance of Janacek’s Jenůfa here in Munich. It’s a new production from last April now revived as part of the summer opera festival. It got a super-enthusiastic reception from the crowd, the orchestra sounded great, and the soloists were more than adequate. So why am I so cold about the whole thing? It may be in part due to how attached I am to the Olivier Tambosi production most recently on view in the U.S. with Karita Mattila and Anja Silja. With something so superior, everything else may pale in comparison. But I really don’t want to be one of those people so attached to past performances that I can’t move on so it does upset me to think this.

Another factor, of course, may be Barbara Frey’s quite reasonable if unassuming production. It’s a modern dress update, but otherwise hews as closely to the original as you could ask. (Although the chorus members all had on weird metallic partial face make-up as if they were cyborgs or the undead for some reason I haven’t quite figured out yet.) Jenufa lives in a sad little hovel somewhere in Eastern Europe with a wind turbine in her front yard and a whole truckload of frustrated expectations. It’s very gray and very, very plain—which seems completely in line with the opera, but I couldn’t help wanting just a little flash of theater dazzle in there somewhere. It just all seemed so pedestrian. Again I hate being one of those people who go to the opera for “magic” or to be “transported” somewhere, but apparently for tonight I was one of them, because despite many strengths in this production, I wasn’t feeling it.

Of these many assets, I’d like to draw particular attention to perhaps the most convincing and beautifully sung Laca I’ve ever seen from Stefan Margita. Often it’s not really clear why Steva is the catch and Laca isn’t in Jenufa, but here Laca was perfect: costumed to be clearly the less attractive option but with a voice so beautiful that it was heartbreaking at times. Of course, the big stars were Eva-Maria Westbroek and Deborah Polaski. Both benefited from stage direction that emphasized the dowdy, loser sides of their characters' personae as opposed to the primal emotive ones like anger, rage, or fear. Westbroek was completely believable acting-wise and gave a bright, pretty vocal performance. I can't wait to see more of her in the U.S. and, given the frequency with which Strauss and Wagner have been entering her repertoire lately, there is a great deal to look forward to. Polaski’s voice is strong and often piercing, but this was a decidedly non-regal Kostelnička. Again I wanted a little more menace than this most domestic of takes on things, but it was vocally an enticing performance. The evening was conducted by Kirill Petrenko, a new face to me, but one who handled the many beautiful moments in Janacek’s score with clear aptitude. I look forward to seeing him again somewhere soon.

So don’t listen to me. What do I know? Munich's Jenůfa was great and it was my own hang-ups that prevented me from getting behind it 100%.

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I see that you caught Rheingold last year in San Francisco - where Stefan Margita stole the show as Loge, between marvelous acting and the fantastic voice. He's great, and I hope he sings Lohengrin at some point. I think he has sufficient heft, plus that otherworldly quality a Lohengrin needs.
I had forgot about that until you pointed that out. I was even more taken with him here and yes, I agree he'd be a fantastic Lohengrin.
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