01 Oct 2007


Across the country from Los Angeles, the Metropolitan Opera has opened its 2007-08 season with big stars (Netrebko, Alagna, Dessay, Giordani) in juicy, melodic operas by Donizetti and Gounod.

But at the Dorothy Chandler, the Los Angeles Opera chose to commence their season with two unquestionable masterpieces of darker colors, less likely to be thought of as “crowd-pleasers.” Beethoven’s Fidelio premiered first, with a stunning cast of relatively new names (Anja Kampe and Klaus Florian Vogt).

On September 27th Janáček’s Jenůfa opened, with the great and glorious Karita Mattila in the lead. Seen at the second performance on Sunday, 30 September, Oliver Tambosi’s now well-traveled production provided a reliable if not exactly memorable staging for a high-powered musical success. Music Director James Conlon appeared again at the pre-lecture (as is very much his wont), to speak with revivalist passion about the merits of Janacek’s opera, now over a century old and yet still not quite beloved enough to make such urgent declarations of merit unnecessary. But as Conlon said, once the audience is in the house for a performance, the opera makes its own case, and better than any speaker can.

Sunday’s performance certainly won over the matinee crowd. At intermission some members spoke admiringly about the dramatic vocals, while wondering about the significance of Tambosi’s core concept: a boulder breaking through the ground in act one, crowding the stage in act two, and broken into rocks and stones for the final act. As the beautiful Jenůfa hides in her step-mother’s house, scarred by her frustrated admirer Laca and recovering from the delivery of the child she produced with the handsome scoundrel Števa, she cries out that she feels as if a stone is crushing her. Apparently that one line provided for Tambosi his entry into the heart of the drama, but when the boulder becomes the primary visual reference, the literal depiction of the metaphor reduces the complexity of the drama, rather than supporting it. The tension of act two, at any rate, certainly does not benefit from giving some of the less serious members of the audience the temptation to giggle, as characters feel their way around the huge boulder in their living room.

But the roar of adulation that greeted the singers and conductor Conlon at the end of the afternoon proved that even the questionable qualities of Tambosi’s setting could not lessen the impact of this performance. Mattila owns the title role, and she remains in her glorious prime. An athletic performer, she could subtly suggest Jenůfa’s youth just through her posture, while incautiously throwing herself around the stage in the dynamic second act. Then in the third, after her almost hysterical outburst at the discovery of the body of her child (murdered by her step-mother in a desperate bid to save her stepdaughter from a shamed and lonely life), Mattila projected a wise and loving forgiveness, even standing stock still. Her singing approached the flawless, with only one high climax finding her reaching up a bit tentatively. Tambosi’s set does have the virtue of high walls, intersecting at the rear, which projects the voices out into the huge space of the Dorothy Chandler. Mattila had the power when she needed it, and could pull back into shades of detail as needed. She is, quite simply, an astounding artist.

As the step-mother Kostelnička, Eva Urbanová came through where it mattered most, in the powerhouse histrionics of act two. Not the actress that Mattila is, Urbanová nevertheless has the sort of edgy, penetrating vocal production perfect for the role, and her commitment helped make the audience understand both the cruel reasoning behind her decision to kill her stepchild and the ability of Jenůfa to forgive her.

The plain but honest quality of Kim Begley’s voice perfectly suits the character of Laca, as does his masculine appearance, which contrasts well with the boyish but callow handsomeness of Jorma Silvasti’s Števa. Silvasti was a late replacement for the young tenor Joseph Kaiser, who took a prime assignment at the Metropolitan. Perhaps this change was just as well, as the trip of Mattila, Begley, and Silvasti made a convincing assembly of peers, all of approximately the same age and all well experienced in their roles.

The LAO orchestra has not played a Janáček score for well over a decade, and Conlon has some more work to do to make the players fully comfortable with the spiky idiom of the composer. With Conlon’s impassioned leadership, Sunday’s performance still had all the power needed, especially for the heart-tugging lyrical outburst at the climax. Act one, however, felt a bit tentative.

So after two very successful productions of Fidelio and this Jenůfa, LAO will return to the tried and true with productions of Don Giovanni and Puccini’s ubiquitous Bohemians, under other conductors. Conlon returns in the 2008 half of the season, with Tristan und Isolde, Otello, and this season’s edition of Conlon’s “Recovered Voices” series, a double-bill of Zemlinsky and Ullman one-acts. All in all, LAO can’t compete with the Met for star-power or technical innovation, but when it comes down to the actual performance, the company may never have been better.

Chris Mullins