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BWW Review: Karita Mattila Steals the Show in Janacek's JENUFA at the Met

Karita Mattila as the Kostelnicka.
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

The opera's called JENUFA, after the unfortunate young woman at the center of its story, which you might call "Czech verismo"--kitchen sink drama of the first degree, with all the cruelties of everyday life. But the star of the show at this season's revival of this soaring musical masterpiece by Janacek is the Kostelnicka of the magnificent Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, in her role debut at the Met.

The Kostelnicka is not exactly a name but a position in the town, the sexton's wife, and she is a force to be reckoned with; so is the singer. Whether Mattila is raising an eyebrow, being angry or confessing to an unthinkable crime (she murders her step-daughter Jenufa's illegitimate child to save the family's honor), you just can't take your eyes off her.

That's not to say that she eats the scenery, because that's far from the case. Hers is a characterization of nuance and finesse; even when she owns up to her crime, she conjures sympathy rather than repulsion. And she sounds good, too. This is a role that often goes to singing actors past their prime, but Mattila doesn't fall into that category at all. With her voice filled with warmth and color at every turn, she's simply spellbinding.

Oksana Dyka and Karita Mattila.
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

The last time the Met performed the opera, Mattila filled the title role: a naïve, unmarried woman whose pregnancy sets the plot snowballing. I couldn't help thinking about it during Oksana Dyka's performance, which still seemed something of a work in progress. Her acting was particularly strong during Act II, but her steely voice left little room for the score's melody and charm (some of the music recalling folksongs of Janacek's native Moravia), though it did get the passion.

The two male leads are both tenors, although they couldn't be more different in weight and style. Joseph Kaiser as Steva, the father of Jenufa's child, was the lighter of the pair but gave a vocally strong turn in a dramatically thankless role. He has rejected Jenufa because she has been scarred by his half-brother Laca, sung by Daniel Brenna, who really loves Jenufa. Brenna seemed to be having an off-evening and, indeed, turned the role over--vocally, at least--to his standby, Garrett Sorenson, at the start of the last act. Sorenson was vocally powerful in the role, even though he sang from the side of the stage while Brenna mimed the role.

The smaller roles were well cast. Of particular note were veteran mezzo Hanna Schwarz as the Grandmother and the young soprano Ying Fang, who gave another of her finely detailed performances, as a shepherd.

You've heard of the "elephant in the room"? Well, this production--with set and costume design by Frank Philipp Schlossman--replaces it with a boulder. It seems to grow incrementally, barely visible in Act I, taking over the stage in Act II, then seeming to explode in Act III. Not exactly subtle, but with Mattila on stage, and with the orchestra in fine form, sounding rich and powerful under David Robinson's careful baton, any shortcomings of the production, originally conceived by Olivier Tambosi, hardly seemed to matter.

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Additional performances of the Met's JENUFA are on November 7, 12eve, 17. Curtain times vary: complete schedule here.



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From This Author Richard Sasanow

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