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27 Aug 2007


In an evening brimming with sublime performances, Anja Siljja took grasp of her dramatic prowess and left us breathless, yearning for more. At the most sacred opera house in Italy, and perhaps the world, Janáček’s opera was thrillingly presented and is an example of our beloved genre at its finest.

Leos Janáček: Jenůfa

Teatro alla Scala di Milano
4 May 2007

Above: Anja Silja, soprano (Photo: Colbert Artists Management)


Jenůfa tells the story of a young woman who finds herself as the central figure in a flurry of ill-fated and violent relationships. She is the focal point around which all of the other dramatis personae rotate. In this character-based production with stage direction by Stéphan Braunschweig and Sceneographer, Alexandre de Dardel, the opera opens with the lovely Jenůfa, played by American soprano Emily Magee, kneeling at center stage looking at her pot of beautiful flowers. Behind her, the stage splits open as if a highlighter ran across the wooded floor and out of the opening expands an enormous rotating windmill. The turning of the windmill is represented during the prelude, beautifully conducted by Maestro Lothar Koenigs, by a repeated xylophone note, a sound that Janáček returns to frequently during the first act. The orchestra della Scala was sensitive and decisive with the composer’s lyricisms and signature ethnic rhythms.

The mill, now belongs to Števa Burja, played by Bass-Baritone Ian Storey, leaving his older brother, Laca, played by Tenor Miro Dvorski, with little inheritance. Both brothers are in love with Jenůfa however she is pregnant by Števa. As the scene changed to open the first act, she anxiously awaits Števa’s return from the conscription ceremony, where it was to be decided whether he was to be drafted to the army. Jenůfa’s, Už se večer chýlí’ (‘Night is already falling’) was brilliantly expressed by the La Scala orchestra and in technically precise and beautifully lyrical phrasing by Ms. Magee. Her soprano is well balanced and projected wonderfully in the helpful La Scala acoustics.

In a fine vocal and dramatic presentation, Miro Dvorski sings his jealous ‘Vy stařenko’ (‘You, Grandmother’) with a broad tenor that exhibited a burnished middle voice and just the right amount of ‘affogato’ in the upper tessitura. The following scene introduces, alto, Mette Ejsing as Grandmother Buryjovka. Ms. Ejsing’s voice had round and lush qualities that produced a striking contrast to the already diverse cast. The end of the act brings the news that Števa has, after all, not been drafted and this leads fantastically into a hubbub reaction by the La Scala chorus who was unified and harmonically sublime in their excitement and celebration. Their entrances and were sheer perfection and there was not one voice out of balance. Each contributed uniquely to the unified whole of this chorus.

At the climax of the ensemble, ‘Všeci za ženija’ (‘All are getting married’), Števa finally enters. Mr. Storey exhibited his strong bass-baritone, a resounding roar-like sound with a beautiful upper-tessitura and a technically proficient ability to create lyricism while effecting power; a difficulty for some baritones Mr. Storey made it look as easy as pie. Dramatically affective, Mr. Storey plays a drunken Števa while the chorus merges in a dancing frenzy that culminates in a wild orgy-like event. The action climaxes here with the powerful and vibrant entrance of the sternest of operatic femme-fatales, but fatale in its most literal and frightening sense. With a single gesture Kostelnička silences the music and all become silent; a silence that screams at us with its potency and darkness, Janáček’s dramatic sense here is articulated perfectly by Maestro Koenigs and the La Scala orchestra. Jenůfa’s stepmother is the Sacristan as the local church and a woman of little means but enormous moral authority.

At first Ms. Silja’s voice seemed overly shrill and harsh in comparison to the rest of her colleagues, but her dramatic skill was impeccable and even overpowering, as is required of Kostelnička. As she began her ‘Aji on byl žlutohřívý’ (‘He too was also golden-haired’), the stepmother asks Jenufa to wait a year before marriage and explains her reasons; reasons that relayed to her own personal experience of suffering in a marriage of abuse and violence. Ms. Silja’s voice grew warmer and the power of her instrument is truly remarkable. Noted for this role, her background in Wagnerian roles and the sheer exuberance of her laser-like, red-hot voice gave the impression that Ms. Silja had not merely become Kostelnička, but that Kostelnička had clearly inhabited Ms. Silja in complete form. The stepmother forewarns Jenůfa of the possibility of having a life similar to her own, and the negative and bleak prospect of having to raise a child alone would be disasterous; not just personally but socially.

This give rise to Janáček’s masterful, full-scale concertato for four voices and chorus composed on the grandmother’s words, ‘Každý párek si musí svoje trápení přestat’ (‘Every couple must get over its problems’). The unity and perfection of the ensemble, soloists, and orchestra give testament to the grandeur and precision that inhabits the walls of the teatro. It gives reason to why audience craves to witness opera here and why La Scala maintains its sacred place as a temple of music. At the end of the act, the xylophone returns to remind us of the dramatic web the turns, just as the windmill does, around the ill-fated Jenůfa.

In the remainder of the act, Mr. Storey’s musicality and dramatic prowess was eloquently displayed in his lovely ‘Už pro tvoje jablúčkovy líce’, a lyrical moment in which he praises the beauty of Jenůfa’s rosy cheeks. Laca then enters to an intervention by the xylophone, a now evident fate-motif. Mr. Dvorski’s intensity in this scene was breathtaking and his voice never wavered in its delivery or technical precision as he took out a knife and asked himself how Števa would react to the disfigurement of Jenůfa’s rosey cheeks. In an explosive flash of percussion and soaring brass, Laca slices Jenůfa’s cheeks turning their rosey colour to blood red and leaving the audience shocked and disgusted at the dark reality that infatuation and jealousy can bestow.

Half a year later, we find the disfigured Jenůfa in her stepmother’s house. The stage is minimal with only a white crib laying at a slanted 45 degree angle on the vast, empty stage. Kostelnička has secretly hidden Jenůfa in order to conceal her pregnancy and the birth of Števa’s child, telling everyone that Jenůfa went to work in Vienna. Kostelnička has secretly summoned Števa and begs him to not abandon his child and marry Jenůfa. It was here that Silja’s dramatic power fell over the opera like a huge cloud of stardust. Her pleas and the sheer power of her voice penetrated with every word, every syllable was inflected with purpose and a deliberant threshold of anticipation: for the moment where the opera takes its fatal turn. Ian Storey managed the scene with great attention to his characters persona and, of course, refuses to marry Jenůfa and wants nothing to do with the child. Silja responded remarkably to his negative statement and the disintegration of her character begins to unfold in a downward and accelerating spiral. In fact, Silja played the role so potently well that had Janáček seen her in it, he might have intended to rename the opera “Kostelnička” instead.

Anja Silja (left) as Kostelnička in Janáček’s Jenůfa

Laca also has learned that Jenůfa bore a child and insists on marrying her. Kostelnička lies to him and tells him that the child has died, and thus began the course of action that would lead to her desperate disintegration. In a violent and astonishing scene that consisted only of a crib with the sleeping infant, Anja Silja brought opera to its glorious definition. The scene in which Kostelnička kills the infant was powerful and the voice was obviously used up to this point in mediation. Truly one of the largest voices, the strength of its sharp, cutting, silvery edge was more than astonishing and one believed that Kostelnička had actually become part of Silja, and not that Silja was merely playing a character. The audience’s gasp at the on-stage murder ended the act after Kostelnička informs Jenůfa that her son is dead.

The concertmaster of the Filarmonica della Scala, Daniele Pascoletti effected a most wonderful interlude that was filled with a most weeping and deeply sorrowful vibrating melody. His vibrato was full and shook with energy to the highest tier of the opera house. The audience sighed when he finished and there was a good moment of silence before Lothar Koenigs moved.

The third act brings us to the wedding of Jenůfa and Laca and as guests begin to arrive Jenůfa’s grandmother blesses the couple. As Silja entered the scene one could see the desperation and guilt weighing on her conscience and her vocal entrances were filled with a solemn tinge of gloom. As Kostelnička was going to bless the couple, shouting is heard from outside: a dead child has been found beneath the ice. The child is brought in and Silja, in a Callas-like manner, fell to her deepest and most pitiful state. The moment where Jenůfa recognizes her son is moving simply due to the magnificent orchestral writing however, Emily Magee’s response was not as dramatic as it could have been; especially with Silja so carefully setting up her own characters despair. This moment should see a reversal of situation, where Jenůfa now has more power over Kostelnička however once the confession of murder was made, Magee moved too quickly to “forgiveness” without really showing the furious anger that a mother would feel had her child been murdered.

Silja, in full force until the end, remained the brimming light in this production. All the portrayals were competent and brilliant, but she stood above them all as was evidently expressed by the audience when Silja took her bows and screams and yelps of “Brava” echoed through the air and failed to silence her voice that lingered still in the rafters.

Mary-Lou Vetere-Borghoff © 2007

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