The Baltimore Opera has scored an impressive triumph with its production of Leos Janacek's brooding powerhouse, "Jenufa."
The performance on Monday night in the Lyric Theater succeeded notably in every major aspect of the taxing work, which is a kind of Czech verismo. Against Allen Klein's dark set of fine imagination, a well-balanced cast projected a strong series of personal images that gave vivid life to Janacek's tragic characters. The music speaks in unusual accents to mirror the folk-derived story. Janacek's scoring takes on a singular richness of texture, and solo voices are given grateful, soaring lines. The last act provides an ideal opportunity for authentic folk singing and dancing to music by country fiddlers.
Heading the cast is a pair of superb English sopranos: Lorna Haywood in the title role and Pauline Tinsley as her stepmother, Kostelnicka. Depending on the dramatic situations, their voices often matched; at other times, they were as different as the momentary hatred or affection that bound them together. Haywood, who has sung the opera in England, is immensely effective as one of opera's most tragic heroines. Her beauty is marred when a jealous suitor slashes her face, and she loses her baby when her stepmother drowns the child because of the shame of its illegitimate birth.
The second act of the opera, in which Jenufa and Kostelnicka have major confrontations, joined by Jenufa's lover, Steva, and later by his stepbrother, Laca, is a magnificent exploration of emotions through music. Haywood was superb in every aspect of the role, while Tinsley rose to tremendous heights.
Tenors Raymond Gibbs and William Neill sang the stepbrothers' parts. Gibbs' voice, which is not large enough for Janacek's powerful writing, sounded tight in the large moments, but he has the part well in hand. Neill came nearer to the requirements for Laca, but both roles need dramatic tenors. In the lesser, vital roles of the grandmother and the foreman, Dana Krueger and William Powers were excellent.
Richard Woitach conducted the members of the Baltimore Symphony with good effect, though the broadest passages of the score are far more overwhelming than they emerged under his leadership. The orchestra -- whose concert season until now has been suspended because of a strike, though it remains free to play for the opera -- played handsomely, and the chorus sang its unfamiliar music convincingly. The entire affair came off on the brilliant side. Bravo Baltimore!