I guess previous times I’ve seen Janáček’s Jenůfa I haven’t really noticed the role that the idea of “bad blood” or inherited depravity plays in the plot but it’s there almost as starkly as in certain works by Zola and Buchan. Perhaps one of the strengths of Christof Loy’s very clean 2014 production for the Deutsche Oper is that it tends to show up such details. It’s certainly a very low key setting. All the action takes place in a plain white room with minimal furnishing. Costuming is modern (sort of); maybe 1950s or so. Sometimes one gets a hint of rather more going on on the edge of the stage but Brian Large’s typically close up video direction makes it hard to be sure. So, at least on disk, it’s all about the characters and their interactions and they are drawn pretty clearly.
Michaela Kaune is a sympathetic Jenůfa. The pathos is there throughout though deepening as her personal tragedy works it way out. She also sings quite beautifully. The only drawback is that Large’s relentless camera shows her up as rather mature for the role. Jennifer Larmore’s Kostelnička is fairly low key but effective and particularly engaging in the final act. It’s a sympathetic treatment rather than fierce interpretation of the role. No modern Kostelnička seems to have achieved the terrifying quality that Števa sees in her. For that one needs to go back to the old Glyndebourne recording with Anja Silva. The grandmother here is played by Hanna Schwarz, still singing remarkably well for a woman in her 70s. Števa, sung here by Ladislav Elgr, is presented as an unsympathetic lout throughout. It makes one of the central mysteries of the plot why the, apparently quite perceptive, Jenůfa falls for him in the first place. He seems much more suited to the mayor’s daughter, presented here, like her mother, as “all fur coat and no knickers”. Laca, played by Will Hartmann, becomes steadily more likeable aided by some quite lovely singing. The psychological arc is such that one is almost left with hope, at least for Jenůfa and Laca at the end.
Donald Runnicles conducts and manages to bring out the lyricism of the music rather nicely. It’s an interesting score. Given that it’s very much a verismo melodrama on stage one might expect the sort of dramatic effects that Puccini would surely have used but Janáček is much more subtle. The way he uses short repeated figures both to build tension and to move the action forward looks forward rather to John Adams. It’s very clever and bears repeated listening. Indeed, overall, one wonders why this piece isn’t a repertoire staple as the music is audience friendly and the plot could easily have been used by Puccini.
Reservations about the video direction aside, the production for disk is up to modern standards with an HD video source and very decent Dolby surround sound on DVD. (The Blu-ray has DTS-HD which should be even better). The only extras are some trailers. The booklet has a synopsis and track listing and a short essay, Janáček in Berlin. Subtitle options are English, German, French, Spanish Korean and Chinese.
I guess the main modern competition for this recording is Stéphane Braunschweig’s Madrid version, which is still quite austere but more visually inventive than Loy. Then, of course, there is the legendary Anja Silva version which is worth seeing despite the fact that everything about it shows its age.