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Janacek's Jenufa at the Israel Opera

A riveting performance that will not be readily forgotten

Jenufa is the best known of Czech composer, Leos Janacek's operas. The young Jenufa is the unmarried stepdaughter of Kostelnicka who is a highly respected citizen in their village. In this tragic saga, Kostelnicka murders Jenufa's newly born child. She perpetrated this vile act to maintain her honour and social standing in the village. Indeed she was so concerned with her potential humiliation, that she concealed Jenufa throughout her pregnancy. Her vain attempt to maintain respectability and standing in the village, hopelessly misfired.       

The Canadian Daniel Dooner revived German director, Nikolaus Lehnhoff's production originally staged for the Glyndebourne Opera. The simple but adequate sets by the German, Tobias Hoheisel, effectively portrayed the small parochial village in Moravia where the action is played out. British born Paul Hastie's lighting effects were particularly noteworthy especially in Act 2, which is set in Kostelnicka's house. This added much to the dramatic tension. 
In the performance I attended, the role of Jenufa was taken by the Armenian soprano, Karine Babajanyan. Overall she gave a good portrayal of the role although her voice did sound a little strained in the lower registers. Of the male protagonists, pride of place went to the American tenor, Hugh Smith, in the role of Laca. This hapless peasant was hopelessly in love with Jenufa and he slashed and disfigured her face so that she would be rejected by his step brother Steva, who was Jenufa's lover and father of her baby. Steva was sung by the English tenor Andrew Rees whose voice was certainly up to the part, although his stage demeanour failed to convey the hard-drinking womanizer, which is so central of the role of Steva. 

The success of any performance of Jenufa stands or falls on the role of Kostelnicka. Indeed so pivotal is her part that the opera could have been named after her rather than her stepdaughter. In this performance, this difficult role was taken by Israeli Mezzo soprano, Dalia Schaechter, in her debut with the Israel Opera. Ms Schaechter has a remarkably successful career in Germany and has sung roles in Munich, Berlin, Zurich and at the Salzburg and Bayreuth festivals.  

Kostelnicka is centre stage in the second act which is the linchpin around which the drama revolves. It is her searing monologues and the interaction with Jenufa, Steva and Lacca that represent the very essence of the opera.  

BARBARA HAVERMAN AND DALIA SCHAECHTER.JPGMs Schaechter's glowing account of the role is something one will not readily forget.  She successfully brought out all the anger, hostility, vengeance and murderous intent, emotions which are all central to the role. But there was also pathos as in her duet with Steva, when she pleaded with him to take back Jenufa and their newborn baby but to no avail. In this duet, she and Steva complemented one another and this was one of the high points of the performance. Only at the opera's conclusion, after the frozen body of Jenufa's baby had been discovered in the melting river, did Kostelnicka show remorse admitting that she was only motivated for her own welfare and not that of Jenufa.   

The Israel opera was fortunate in having Dalia Schaechter in this role and she joins the roster of illustrious Kostelnicka's in the past that I have been privileged to hear including Leonie Rysanek, Anja Silja and Eva Marton.

Lebanese born conductor, George Pehlivanian led the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion, the resident orchestra at the Israel Opera. He successfully coaxed the evocative music from the score and proved to be an excellent accompanist to the singers. All told this production of Jenufa was a great triumph for the Israel Opera.

Legend to the Figures

Figure 1: Act 3 of Jenufa.  Photo credit: Yossi Zwecker 

Figure 2:  Act 2 of Jenufa with Barbara Haveman as Jenufa and Dalia Schaechter as Kostelnicka.  Photo credit: Yossi Zwecker 

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