In 'Jenufa,' Plenty of Wrongs Done Right

Raymond Very and Patricia Racette, front and center, are part of the uniformly superb Washington National Opera production of
Raymond Very and Patricia Racette, front and center, are part of the uniformly superb Washington National Opera production of "Jenufa." (By Karin Cooper)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 7, 2007

Washington National Opera has given us many exciting and impressive evenings over the years. And yet the company's current presentation of Leos Janacek's "Jenufa," which opened Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, sets a new standard for the troupe, one that likely will not be surpassed soon.

What we have here is an excruciating masterpiece of music theater in a production that fits it exactly -- and how often does that happen in any opera house? Moreover, it is cast from strength, from the leading roles to the tiniest walk-on; conducted with absolute sympathy and authority; and shot through with a sense of catharsis that calls the ancient Greeks to mind.

It is not an easy night out. Janacek's opera is a bleak study in human misery, complete with alcoholism, primal jealousies, madness and infanticide. Director David Alden has set the action in a grim and grimy cityscape -- think of the abandoned factories in Baltimore or Cleveland -- and bathed it in unforgiving white light. Janacek's music, though unfailingly original and often convulsively beautiful, will always seem rather strange to unaccustomed ears, with its near-cubist sense of form and reiterative modules that prefigure the minimalism of our era. And, finally, the opera is sung in Czech, rather than the more familiar French, Italian or German (supertitles provide a line-by-line translation).

In short, "Jenufa" is a challenge, but one that is spectacularly worth taking. Soprano Patricia Racette's searing portrayal of the title role is not only brilliantly sung -- combining oceanic power with myriad subtle intricacies, all in a voice that somehow remains fresh and lyrical throughout the evening -- but indelibly well-acted. Catherine Malfitano is no less harrowing in the role of Kostelnicka. Indeed, there were moments when she called to mind the late Leonie Rysanek, the only other singer in my experience who could make this character utterly monstrous and curiously sympathetic.

As the stepbrothers Laca and Steva, Kim Begley and Raymond Very employ their high, strong and intensely emotive tenor voices with surety of pitch, unflagging energy and keen dramatic intelligence. Mezzo-soprano Judith Christin turned Grandmother Buryjovka into a fully dimensional eccentric, the sort who wins cult status on television (think the Church Lady from "Saturday Night Live" or one of Carol Burnett's more withering interpretations). Christina Martos and Leslie Mutchler came across as models of chic punk kitsch as Barena and Karolka, yet played their characters convincingly underneath the glam. There was superbly integrated support from Jeffrey Wells, Magdalena Wor, Charles Robert Austin and Janice Meyerson.

If I were on the search committee to find a new music director for the National Symphony Orchestra, I would take a long look at Jiri Belohlavek, who has already been a successful guest conductor here and who brought out playing of sumptuous tone and distinctly shaped character from the Washington National Opera Orchestra. As usual, the Washington National Opera Chorus fulfilled its duties with distinction -- what vast improvement in the company ensembles over the past dozen years!

The production, which was first performed at the English National Opera last fall and then brought to Houston before coming here, is already famous. And rightly so: I cannot imagine a more affecting and appropriate "Jenufa." The updating to the present day seems utterly natural, without any directorial affectation, and such time-tested theatrical gestures as the throwing of a chair or the smashing of a window here take on the painful immediacy of body blows. This is great music drama. Whether you end up "liking" it or not, you will never forget it.

Jenufa will be repeated Thursday evening, Sunday afternoon and May 16, 19, 21 and 24. For information, visit http://www.dc-opera.org or call 212-295-2400.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company