La Scena Musicale

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Jenufa at Munich’s Bavarian State Opera

The opening, on April 8, of a gripping new production of Leos Janacek’s Jenufa at Munich’s Bavarian State Opera is a feather in the cap of intendant, Nikolaus Bachler. His plan is to provide, during the season, both traditional productions with concept-driven, edgy regietheater. But “traditional” does not necessarily mean “old-school.”

Formerly director of Vienna’s famed Bergtheater, Bachler was aware of stage director Barbara Frey’s work and his engagement of her to stage Jenufa, her first opera, was a gamble that paid off. She took the story of lost love and infanticide to heart and her taut reading makes the story both a searing drama and an epic tragedy.

The setting, an open house on stakes, served to focus attention on the tension of this dangerously dysfunctional family drama. The crowds who appear outside with the discovery of the body of the love child in the lake, scramble over the forbidding rocks in this desolate landscape. Staging, costumes and lighting all contribute to the sense of desolation which permeates this drama. Slightly updated - wind turbine towers are in the background and a cheap TV is on the table - the small town claustrophobia of 19th Century Moravia can be easily understood by contemporary audiences.

Bachler was generous with the assembled talent to bring this off. The blazing work of soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek has generated much press recently and, in the title role, her desperate love for a feckless young man, Steva, could not be more heart-wrenching. With one of the most passionate and generous voices today, her anguish was palpable throughout the hall.

There was a sure chemistry between her and her step-sister, Kostenicka, played to perfection by the veteran soprano Deborah Polaski. Canadian Joseph Kaiser, with a clear, expressive tenor, was convincing as young Steva and Stefan Margita added his disturbing, complex reading of faithful Laca. The secondary characters were also theatrically on target, including opera legend Helga Dernesch, now 70, as the grandmother.

This was also a fine day for Kirill Petrenko who lead the distinguished opera orchestra with vivid clarity. His career is taking off in the last few years with major appearances in the pit at New York, Paris, Vienna and London and his galvanizing leadership contributed to the seamless night of high-voltage music making.

The opera is playing now at the Bavarian State Opera’s National Theater through April 27 and will be seen again as part of the Munich Opera Festival on July 9. Information is at

Frank Cadenhead

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