The last time I saw Karita Mattila in “Jenůfa” she played the title role, a young village girl madly in love with the town ne’er-do-well and secretly carrying his child to boot. Now, her gleaming voice burnished with maturity, the great Finnish soprano sings the role of Kostelnička, Jenůfa’s overprotective stepmother, in San Francisco Opera’s totally splendid production of Leoš Janáček’s masterpiece of a folk opera. And I would say she steals the show were it not that everybody else in it is so good.
This is a fitting farewell to outgoing Artistic Director David Gockley; one of the best things to take the War Memorial House stage in his decade of outstanding leadership. Sensitively conducted by Janáček’s compatriot Jiří Bĕlohlávek, with magnificent work from the orchestra, chorus and soloists, it is a totally immersive experience — dramatically as well as musically — everything opera should be.
Swedish soprano Malin Byström makes her San Francisco debut in the title role, and both she and her voice are as beautiful as they come. She holds her own with the more seasoned Mattila in their many scenes together. Scott Quinn is her lover, Steva, weak, unfaithful, cosseted by his grandmother and sought after by all the girls in town. His stepbrother, Laca, wonderfully played and sung by William Burden, is just the opposite: rejected, despised and unable to express his own love for Jenůfa except through violence. Spoiler alert: he turns out to be the better man in the end.
The plot, for an opera, is quite simple. In a backwoods Moravian village, girl meets boy, girl gets boy and boy gets girl pregnant. The shame is too much for the upstanding widow (Mattila), who loves and wants to protect her stepdaughter, so she hides Jenůfa away until the child is born. She then calls for the father, Steva, to shoulder his responsibilities, to at least look at the child, but he has moved on and is engaged to the mayor’s daughter. Laca, his half-brother, steps forward. He will marry Jenůfa, in spite of her shame. But the burden of public censure is too much for Kostelnička, who spirits the child away and drowns it in the ice of a nearby river, telling Jenůfa that it died of illness while she was unconscious.
It is Jenůfa and Laca’s wedding day — although the bride is dressed in mourning for her son, perhaps for her lost dreams. As the villagers stream into the square to congratulate the couple, someone offstage discovers the body of a baby floating in the stream.
Janáček’s music consists of an extended recitative, with lush melodies underlying in the orchestra. (The composer wrote his own libretto.) There are few set pieces, as in other operas, several folk choruses for the villagers, a great quartet at the end of Act One, Kostelnička’s stark, dramatic aria in the second act as she contemplates risking eternal damnation to gain her beloved stepdaughter’s freedom from shame (or, is it her own shame?) and Jenůfa’s final forgiveness and acceptance of what is still good in her life. The opening chords of Act II are full of foreboding, as well they should be, but the final act begins with a typically merry Czech folk dance.
In addition to those cited, mention must be made of Jill Grove as the Grandmother, brooding, imposing and impressively sung. Frank Philipp Schlössman’s stunner of a set is almost a character in its own right — wooden, slanted walls framing a field of golden wheat and a sharply raked stage for Act I; a huge boulder serving as Kostelnička’s house in Act II; and a rock-strewn landscape for the final scene, as if the massive rock that was Kostelnička’s pride had shattered into pieces. Abetted by Gary Marder’s masterful lighting and Kristi Johnson’s simple but appropriate costumes, the stage pictures are as wonderful to see as the music is to hear.
“Jenůfa” is not one of the most popular works in the operatic canon. Performed as it is at San Francisco Opera, it should be.