Opera Review: JENŮFA (Lyric Opera of Chicago)

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by Barnaby Hughes on November 18, 2023

in Music,Theater-Chicago


Jenůfa is now the third opera in a row this season whose plot features a woman with two suitors. Yet each opera puts its own spin on this common trope. In Leoš Janáček’s Jenůfa, the titular heroine loves the carousing Števa, but not his half-brother Laca. Both men are less than ideal partners, but whereas Števa abandons Jenůfa after Laca (accidentally?) disfigures her face, Laca’s devotion remains constant. Even after Jenůfa gives birth to Števa’s child, Laca wishes to marry her. In order to seal the deal, the Kostelnička (Jenůfa’s stepmother) buries Jenůfa’s baby under the ice. It is a dark opera, and similar to Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman in both plot and tone.

   Lise Davidsen the Company of Jenůfa (Lyric Opera of Chicago);
Lise Davidsen and the Company (Michael Brosilow);
Lise Davidsen, Richard Trey Smagur and the Company (Michael Brosilow)

As a production, Jenůfa features outstanding performances from its four principal actor-singers: Swedish soprano Nina Stemme as the Kostelnička (last seen five years ago at Lyric in Elektra), and, making their Lyric debuts, Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen as Jenůfa, Czech tenor Pavel Černoch as Laca, and American tenor Richard Trey Smagur as Števa. Stemme holds nothing back, putting her whole self into the role, singing and emoting with such incredible force that she drives the drama onwards. 

 Pavel Černoch, Nina Stemme, Lise Davidsen (Michael Brosilow)

Davidsen and Černoch both have beautiful voices with clear tonality, such as Davidsen’s tender rendition of the Salve Regina prayer in Czech. Yet each gives a somewhat muted performance. When Davidsen’s Jenůfa discovers that her stepmother has killed her baby, for example, she doesn’t rage at the Kostelnička, as one might expect. And when Jenůfa and Laca should be sharing their happy ending, they don’t even look at each other or hold hands, despite walking in tandem. These are just two incidents that hollow out some of the plot’s dramatic ups and downs.

Richard Trey Smagur, Lise Davidsen (Lyric Opera of Chicago)

These missteps are likely due to Claus Guth’s original direction (or revival director Axel Weidauer). Guth’s vision for the production is puzzling, if not downright problematic. One immediately wonders what is going on in Act I, supposedly set in a mill. There are beds and in front of them women peeling potatoes? In Act II, supposedly a cottage, the bed frames have been turned upright to form a kind of cage, while the mattresses are strewn haphazardly around the stage floor. Women stand huddled in the corner staring at the wall. Why? It seems as if there are always people standing on the edges of the set, often doing nothing.

Lise Davidsen, Marianne Cornetti (Lyric Opera of Chicago)

Yet, there are two directorial touches that heighten the drama. In both Acts, all is monochrome except for the two sites of violence, both colored red: Jenůfa’s face and her baby. And in Act II, a person wearing a crow’s head approaches the cage and climbs onto it, presumably as the harbinger of the baby’s death.

Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša, making his Lyric debut, unfortunately fails to achieve balance between the orchestra and the soloists, who are often overpowered. Janáček’s score is reminiscent of the late Wagner in tonality, but more dissonant. There is ample use of brass throughout, as well as percussion, and occasionally prominent use of solo violin and harp. He writes superbly for solo voice, though rarely for vocal ensemble. There are many moments where a duet would have added to the beauty and drama of the score. What few choruses Janáček writes are weak and insubstantial.

Nina Stemme, Richard Trey Smagur, and the Company (Lyric Opera of Chicago)

Despite Guth’s sometimes bizarre direction and Hrůša’s failure to rein in the orchestra, this Lyric production can still be recommended as a rare opportunity to see this dramatic Janáček opera, which premiered nearly 120 years ago. Lyric’s first production of Janáček’s Jenůfa was in English translation. And there are other versions, such as the much-edited Prague version of Karel Kovařovic. Janáček’s original Czech score is beautifully brought to life by Lyric’s talented cast, chorus, and orchestra. Stay tuned for Rossini’s Cinderella in the new year.

The Company of Jenůfa (Michael Brosilow)

sung in Czech with projected English titles
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive
reviewed November 12, 2023
next performance dates: November 18, 21 and 26
ends on November 26, 2023
for tickets, call 312.332.2244 or visit Lyric Opera

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

Nina Stemme, Lise Davidsen (Michael Brosilow)

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