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Sopranos Light Up ‘Jenufa’ at The Met

January 14, 2003

NEW YORK (AP) _ It sounds like the plot of a sordid melodrama: beautiful young woman falls for the town ne’er-do-well, who gets her pregnant. His half-brother loves her but slashes her face in a jealous rage. Her stepmother hides her away until she gives birth, then drowns the baby in the river. Will the crime be discovered? Can our heroine ever find happiness?

Yet out of these ingredients, the Czech composer Leos Janacek fashioned one of the most moving and finally uplifting operas ever written _ ``Jenufa,″ which returned to the Metropolitan Opera in a new production Monday night.

The occasion was a triumph for sopranos Karita Mattila and Deborah Polaski who gave electrifying performances as the title character and her stepmother, Kostelnicka.

They had strong support from their fellow singers and from conductor Vladimir Jurowski, who brought out the full range of emotion embedded in the quicksilver score. He used the so-called ``Brno version″ of 1908, whose astringent orchestration is truer to the composer’s original intent than the more romantic 1918 Prague version.

Such is Janacek’s sense of humanity that in this collection of flawed characters, some of whom do terrible things, there are no real villains. But anyone determined to find villains lurking on stage at the Met might well have settled on the production team, headed by director Olivier Tambosi.

He, set and costume designer Frank Philipp Schloessmann and lighting designer Max Keller were roundly booed when they came out for their curtain calls, and for once the catcalls seemed justified.

Instead of a naturalistic depiction of a Moravian village, as called for in the story, Tambosi has conceived a clumsily symbolic set _ seen previously in Hamburg and London _ that is dominated by a rock. It’s only a mildly distracting outcropping in Act I, which takes place outdoors with a field of ripe corn in the background. But by Act 2, when the drama reaches its emotional peak inside Kostelnicka’s house, the rock has become an enormous boulder that takes up most of what should be the living quarters. By Act 3, outdoors again, the boulder has shattered into fragments (get the symbolism?) that are strewn about the stage as all the characters’ desperately kept secrets spill out.

It’s a tribute to the performers’ singing and acting talents that they were able to rise to heights of dramatic pathos despite these distractions. Mattila was in radiant voice throughout and moved persuasively from youthful optimism to maternal grief to mature resignation and forgiveness. Polaski, despite a few errant high notes, etched an unforgettable portrait of a proud but loving woman who commits a terrible crime in a moment of desperation.

Two debuting tenors portrayed Jenufa’s suitors. Kim Begley swaggered and sang beautifully as the spoiled Steva, and Christopher Ventris did a fine job with the larger and more difficult role of Laca, who impulsively attacks Jenufa but then repents and stays true to her at the end.


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