Janácek Jenufa

Author: 
John Warrack
janacek jenufa mackerras

JANÁČEK Jenůfa

  • Jenufa
  • Jealousy

The appearance of each opera in the Decca Janacek cycle under Sir Charles Mackerras has been a major gramophone event, for a number of reasons. Not only are the casts well chosen, and the recordings of great technical sophistication, often 'solving' virtually intractable problems posed by Janacek's idiosyncratic scoring: Sir Charles combines a scholar's assessment of the problems with the understanding and freshness of a major Janacek interpreter, certainly one of the greatest of the day; and he has at his elbow Dr John Tyrrell to prepare correct performing versions that often take us back, for the first time, to Janacek's intentions.
The new Jenufa is no exception. To the cast, first. It is led by Elisabeth Soderstrom, a Jenufa of great tenderness and strength, one in whom the sense of threatening despair is held at bay by a glowing simplicity and strength of character. She phrases Janacek's soaring melodic lines with a full understanding of their Romantic passion without ever allowing them to loosen into sentimentality; she has a sharp appreciation of the cut of his often difficult rhythms; her voice is flexible in expression, ranging from a sorrowful warmth in the scenes over the loss of the baby to a pride of utterance in the confrontations with Steva and a moving dignity in the closing reconciliation with the Kostelnicka. Eva Randova sings the latter role very responsively to Soderstrom, and makes the character less of a termagent than is usual. In this, she is encouraged by a restoration in the score, the so-called 'explanation' aria in Act 1 in which the Kostelnicka tells of her own unhappy past. The piece might perhaps hold up the drama on the stage, if it were to be included: on the gramophone, it is a valuable inclusion, apart from returning to us a fine piece of music. So although the frightened Steva calls her ''divna, strasna— ''strange, frightful''—it is the misery he also sees in her which is a key to her complicated character, and which Randova brings out. The final confrontation with the forgiving Jenufa is most movingly done.
The two men are well contrasted. Peter Dvorsky sings a lively, attractive Steva, self-regarding and of course essentially weak, so that at the climax he is found still posturing so as to lay a claim on everyone's attentions, and getting pretty short shrift from Karolka: he does this cleverly, and is well matched by Lucia Popps's sprightly Karolka. Wieslaw Ochman, as the more serious Laca, sings soberly but with considerable passion contained within his utterances, and he handles very well indeed both the dreadful scene when he slashes Jenufa's cheek and his dignified acceptance of her past relationship with Steva. The smaller parts are well handled, and the bustle and confusion of the climax keeps them well separated both in characterization and in recorded presentation without exaggeration. Under Sir Charles, the orchestra plays marvellously, with power and warmth but also, as at the start of Act 3, with a delightful freshness that is an essential part of the opera's nature.
The three records on to which this short but immensely full opera is fitted find room for two bonuses. The original Overture, now usually separated and known as Zarlivost (''Jealousy'') is included. I would not myself wish to remove the effect of the wonderful opening on the clacking mill-wheel sound of the xylophone, but it is good to have the extra music available. Secondly, there is a 'new' ending—actually, the old one. All these years, Jenufa has been given in the version prepared by Karl Kovarovic, which modifies the closing pages by taking Janacek's melodic figures and making of them a series of instrumental imitations in a kind of canon. It is glowing and effective; but trying now to rid one's ears of it, one does as usual find that the sparer, more understated Janacek original in fact says more. Both are here recorded, the original as part of the opera, Kovarovic as a separately-banded appendix. Apart from this, the entire score has been revised and restored to its original form by Dr Tyrrell, who not for the first time earns our gratitude. He has also provided a masterly introduction which takes us through the whole story of the work, from an appreciation of the original author, Gabriela Preissova, and the reception of her work to a consideration of the libretto's formation and of the score itself in a detail that is wholly fascinating. He is very perceptive, and independent-minded, about Janacek's approach to the text, particularly about his handling of the Kostelnicka. An american Janacek scholar recently told me that he considered some of the best work being done on the composer to be contained in this series of Decca essays by Dr Tyrrell. Finally, there is a complete text with a translation by Deryck Viney. This is fresh and lively, if sometimes rather too free in its praiseworthy attempt to make the language colloquial. However, if it occasionally makes these Moravian villagers a little English, I cannot resist his translation of the quoted folk-song Daleko †iroko do tech Novych Zamku (literally ''Far and wide it is to Nove Zamky'') as ''It's a long, long way to Nove Zamky''.
So it is a pleasure to be able to welcome this set, combining as it does high interpretative artistry, scrupulous and original scholarship and technical excellence in a manner that does credit to all, and to Decca for fathering it.'

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