The Larger They Come

Jenůfa at the Santa Fe Opera

The story of Jenůfa is not a happy one. Not by a long shot. In a prelude talk, educator Oliver Prezant animatedly told the crowd that—after a fashion—it is a story of reconciliation and redemption. To be honest, I still just found the whole premise miserable and misogynistic. But that wasn't a surprise, heading in.

What was a surprise, heading out, was just how much I enjoyed watching this miserable and misogynistic premise unfold.

Since this is an opera that folks aren't as familiar with, and since the plot is where the bulk of my hesitations lie, a quick synopsis is in order:

The Czech opera, composed and written by Leoš Janáček, is set in a dour industrial town in Moravia. This staging is pushed forward about 100 years from the original story, to the mid-20th century, and a factory (updated from the original 1904 story, in which it is a mill) owned by local golden child Števa (tenor Richard Trey Smagur). Ingenious minimalist xylophone taps, meant to emulate the droning sound of running water in the original and the clicking of machinery in this staging, predate Philip Glass by a century but feel new and inspiring in a pit conducted by Johannes Debus.

Števa is engaged to marry the beautiful, intelligent Jenůfa (the lovely Laura Wilde, soprano). However, Števa's half-brother Laca (tenor Alexander Lewis) is also in love with Jenůfa, and in a moment of jealousy (or accident-prone butterfingers? Hard to tell), Laca slices Jenůfa's face with a knife. Števa disowns his disfigured fiancé. The kicker: Jenůfa is pregnant with Števa's child, but Števa won't claim the child either.

Jenůfa's mother Kostelnička (a term used to denote a woman of particular standing in a community—here played by superstar Patricia Racette, soprano) hides her at home for nine months, cardboard covering all the windows, and tells the townsfolk that Jenůfa is in Austria. Act two opens upon an exhausted and pained Jenůfa, eight days postpartum, feverish and weak (an impressive shift for Wilde, whose gentle vibrancy in act one was a balm on frenetic action), as her mother laments what this out-of-wedlock baby will do to her daughter's reputation. Jenůfa goes to lie down; Kostelnička grabs the baby and disposes of him "under the ice" outside, telling Jenůfa when she wakes that the baby died naturally.

The "redemption" that Prezant talked about comes in act three, when Števa comes to the house and still refuses to look at or associate with Jenůfa, and it becomes clear Kostelnička killed the child to save her daughter, whom she loves unconditionally. Then Laca shows up, says the whole face-cutting thing was just an accident, and promises to take care of Jenůfa forever. Kostelnička gets her due and Jenůfa and Laca embrace. Fin.

So, you see, it's not really a very happy tale. The romanticizing of a woman returning to her abuser made my stomach churn a bit. Maybe it even sounds miserable enough that you might want to skip it.

But if you garner anything from my take on this Jenůfa, it's that you should steel yourself to the story and see it anyway, thanks to an inspired, dark, sexy staging.

The pulling of the story 100 years into the future works seamlessly; really, the only thing that indicated that the mid-century setting was not Janáček's original intention was the use of the word "mill" rather than "factory" in the libretto. Stage director David Alden deserves praise for an inspired move, sending flashy Števa riding onto the stage on a motorcycle (think Eddie in Rocky Horror) and Laca taunting Jenůfa with a drill throwing sparks. The townspeople, too, are firmly modern, including women in slinky outfits and fishnets who fawn all over Števa, making it abundantly clear where he stands by way of fidelity. The time jump might have felt forced if these actors were less committed, but as it turned out, it was an effective device.

Set designer Charles Edwards used corrugated metal and stark geometric wallpaper to create a cold and gray atmosphere, with a set that busts apart and changes in a way that perhaps La Bohème's wishes it did. Harsh, stark lighting by Duane Schuler recalled Jax Messenger's work in last week's positively exhilarating Così fan tutte with its use of silhouette and drama, conjuring film noir and transforming beams of light into palpable pieces of architecture. Lastly, the universe helped the Santa Fe Opera out once again, as smoke from the Francisquito Fire in Carson National Forest blew in across the valley and even made the opera house smell vaguely like a smoggy industrial town.

My use of the word "sexy" was entirely inspired by the first act of this one. While dark and dissonant, it also featured one of the best ensemble performances I've ever seen at SFO. They sounded great, and costumes by Jon Morrell painted an aesthetically appropriate picture, but the use of choreographer Maxine Braham was truly inspired.

Operas are not typically known for their excellent dancing, of course, but Jenůfa should get a gold star for the tight movements of the entire ensemble. The dance is used to great effect to show the jubilation of the drunken mob, contrasting starkly with Jenůfa's classy and measured personality, Števa in particular standing out. Not only does Smagur literally rise above the crowd (what is he, like, 7 feet tall?!), but he was one of the few performers who could be consistently heard above the swelling orchestra. Indeed, Wilde and Lewis were often drowned out, unfortunately, despite their beautiful tones. Smagur's energy, however, was explosive and shone through the crowded stage.

But by way of energy, Lewis too deserves a nod. I was reminded constantly of cocky, scrappy Ziggy Sobotka from season two of renowned police drama The Wire—a scrawny cockerel who in the end really does mean well, but can't stop fucking up despite his best intentions. Lewis' body almost flings out of itself with his charged and electric actions. In act one, he's haggard but sinewy and vibrant; by the time we see him again in act three, he is wilted and exhausted, his face dark and drawn. The contrasts here in Wilde, Smagur and Lewis between acts one and three were impeccably presented and made for great storytelling.

Of course, in closing, what is a review of an opera featuring Patricia Racette without mentioning Patricia Racette? The superstar certainly got the biggest thunder of applause and bravas at curtain call, and indeed, her portrayal of the complex and intense Kostelnička was inspired. But her excellence is a given.

More exciting, however, was the strangeness of aspects of this staging, the unnerving ensemble choreography and a score that swept the audience into the churning heart of jealousy.

Four performances through Aug. 15. $42-$295.
Santa Fe Opera,
301 Opera Drive,

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