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05 Nov 2004

Fanfare Reviews Jenufa

JANáCEK Jenufa * Charles Mackerras, cond; Janice Watson (Jenufa), Josephine Barstow (The Kostelnicka), Nigel Robson (Laca), Peter Wedd (Steva), Neale Davies (Foreman); Welsh Natl Op O & Ch * CHANDOS 3106 (2 CDs: 121: 11) There is so much to...

JANáCEK Jenufa * Charles Mackerras, cond; Janice Watson (Jenufa), Josephine Barstow (The Kostelnicka), Nigel Robson (Laca), Peter Wedd (Steva), Neale Davies (Foreman); Welsh Natl Op O & Ch * CHANDOS 3106 (2 CDs: 121: 11)

There is so much to say about this recording that one hardly knows where to start. It is a new entry in Chandos's "Opera in English" series. Opera in the language of the audience vs. its original language used to be a hot topic everywhere; e.g., many historical performances of Verdi, Tchaikovsky, or Gounod in German. The public's acceptance of subtitles at the opera put an end to the debate everywhere but in England--Die Macht des Schicksals long since became La forza del destino in Munich. Most of the time, this English libretto works just fine, but there are places where important notes fall on unaccented syllables, a note is extended to cover an extra word, or the natural pulse of a phrase is distorted to fit the rhythm of the music. This is by no means a poor translation. A major part of writing an opera is joining the music and libretto seamlessly, difficult enough when each may be modified as needed, virtually impossible without being able to alter the music. In addition, the correct, upright English used by this all-British-Isles cast sounds too formal, too high-class for the tale's country-farm setting, be it be in Moravia, Yorkshire, or Kansas. There is nothing of the vernacular here; even the nicknames they use among themselves--Jenfka, Stevuihka, Mamiko--are left in Czech. The same may be true of original-language Jenufa recordings, but few non-Czech speakers would be sensitive to that.

My last exposure to this series (in Fanfare 27:4) was Simon Rattle's Vixen, which I found too English in style as well as language. There is no danger of that with Charles Mackerras: American born, educated in Sydney and Prague, but an honorary Moravian if ever there was one, he is the great Janápiek conductor everywhere. His recordings of seven Janápiek operas set standards that have not been surpassed, including a 1982 Jenufa for Decca/London. His soprano then was Elisabeth Söderström, his orchestra the Vienna Philharmonic; both seemed perfect at the time, but Karita Matilla outshone Söderström in a 2001 Erato production of a Covent Garden live performance (26:5), a most memorable portrayal. Although this new Chandos recording is a studio production, it has all the dramatic vitality of a live performance--more so than the live Matilla/Haitink. It was based on a spring 2003 production at the Welsh National Opera, but its Jenfa, the brilliant young Susan Chilcott, was ill with cancer and unable to participate in the July 2003 sessions; she died in September of that year. Conductor Mackerras then chose Janice Watson to replace Chilcott; what a daunting challenge that must have been!

The two leading ladies are very good, but is that enough in these great intertwining roles? Janice Watson sings convincingly, soaring nicely to her few high notes. She doesn't realize much of Jenfa's character in the first act, perhaps because she was not a part of the staged production, but she is also hindered by running into awkward word/music mixes as she shapes a musical phrase. Watson does better with her big solo in the second act and her final aria to Laca, but again her singing is stronger than her characterization. As the Kostelnika, Josephine Barstow is a bit distanced; she pronounces Jenufa with an English J as in Jennie, rather than the Czech "Yenoofa," which everyone else uses. This suggests that she too may not have been with the ensemble before the recording. She sings at least as well as most Kostelnikas, occasionally resorting to speech but seldom to shouting; she underplays the role until rising to a fine dramatic climax with "The icy hand of death" at the close of the second act, as she does again in her plea for forgiveness in the finale. In spite of the considerable achievements of both sopranos, a lack of chemistry between them prevents the finale from jelling. Tenor Nigel Robson is a vocally strong, dramatic Laca in the early going but is weaker after he becomes the good guy. Peter Wedd is a suitably self-absorbed Steva. Welsh baritone Neale Davies is magnificent, stealing the first act with the foreman's aria. Several other roles are played by members or frequent guests of the Welsh National Opera, contributing to a sense of ensemble left over from the stage. The chorus is too large, both because it becomes a bit untidy and because what sounds like 50 recruits in act I is an enormous group for a rural farming village (the text says "only nine"); as a result, their revelry does not come across clearly. The peasant girls in act III are a suitably smaller group, and their song is just right.

It is the orchestra that holds this performance together, propelled by Mackerras at ferocious tempos throughout act I, with an intensity that never lets up. The Vienna Philharmonic in his earlier recording is silkier, as are the forces of the Royal Opera House under Haitink, but neither attains the dramatic force experienced here. Mackerras never lets pure beauty soften the pulse; probably he didn't mean to do so in Vienna either, but that lustrous orchestra just couldn't help itself. The singers here are often pressed and occasionally drowned out by the orchestra, and the rich recording focuses more tightly on the instruments than the voices. When two characters are present, as is so often the case in this opera, each is put exclusively into one stereo channel, so balances can be weird when listening on headphones, which I do not recommend.

The booklet is a model of presentation, with all the expected amenities. The libretto is English only, but notes come in German, French, and Italian as well. Included is a family tree, especially useful in this opera in which everyone is related, but seldom by blood. The opera's title, Její pastorkyna, is usually translated "Her Foster-Daughter." Here it is more sensibly "Her Step-Daughter." One page is devoted to a detailed explanation of Czech pronunciation, including the effects of many accent marks. Why here, where there is no Czech to be heard? Why not a guide to English pronunciation for Slavic listeners who don't want to miss a Mackerras-led Janácek recording? The "Opera in English" series is sponsored by the Peter Moores Foundation, the creation of Sir Peter Moores, CBE, DL, who rates a photo and a nearly full-page biography, where we learn that he was "born in Lancashire and educated at Eton College and Christ Church, Oxford." All of which suggests that the intended audience for these recordings is primarily the English gentry.

Despite everything, those who prefer opera in English now have a powerhouse Jenufa of their own.

James H. North

*This review is reprinted with the kind permission of Fanfare, The Magazine for Serious Record Collectors. For more information regarding Fanfare, please visit its website at http://www.fanfaremag.com/. Subscription information is available at http://www.fanfaremag.com/subscriptions.html.*

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