‘Jenufa’ out-performs audience at opening

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Companies like the Washington National Opera get flack for re-running the same war horses year after year. But whenever WNO attempts to broaden its repertoire, to offer something new, the frequently foreordained result is a river of red ink.

Take the company’s musically riveting production of Leos Janacek’s first operatic masterpiece, “Jenufa,” which the company premiered this weekend at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Here’s an opera that’s hardly “new,” having received its premiere in Brno, in what is now the Czech Republic, in 1903. It’s tonal with a lush and brilliantly Slavic verismo touch, and deals with largely working-class characters enmeshed in the requisite sex and violence.

Looks like a sure winner, and this production has nearly everything going for it, especially a top-notch cast of magnificent singers. So, why were there row upon row of empty seats on opening night for this now-acknowledged early 20th century masterpiece?

“Jenufa” is a fast-moving tale of seduction, abandonment and infanticide, all of which seem surprisingly contemporary in light of recent Supreme Court rulings. Expecting the swaggering Steva, head of the town’s mill and father of her as-yet unborn child to marry her, Jenufa innocently incurs the wrath of Steva’s stepbrother, Laca, who slashes her face with a knife. Put off by this disfiguring injury, Steva becomes engaged to the daughter of the town’s mayor. Jenufa’s stepmother, the Kostelnicka, hides Jenufa away until she gives birth and then drowns the baby in an icy river to avoid shame to them both.

Unpleasant stuff, but love and hate intertwine, morphing into a complex, redemptive finale that provides the singers — including a large, robust chorus — with endless opportunities to explore the intense emotions embedded in Janacek’s unique and deeply-moving drama.

In her company debut, radiant soprano Patricia Racette confidently projects her character with a warm, self-assured instrument possessing near-Wagnerian power. As her stepmother and super-ego, the Kostelnicka, soprano Catherine Malfitano employs her deeper, darker voice in counterpoint to convey a past-haunted woman who exceeds her moral bounds.

As Steva, tenor Raymond Very’s icy tones define at once his unbridled hedonism and selfishness. As Steva’s stepbrother, Laca, tenor Kim Begley, initially brutish and jealous, seeks redemption in mutual forgiveness and love as his clear and powerful instrument soars in the opera’s final moments.

Orchestra and chorus were convincing under the able baton of Jiri Belohlavek, transforming Janacek’s score into a genuine voyage for operagoers eager to expand their musical horizons — hopefully more than the modest crowd that materialized on opening night.

On the downside, Charles Edwards’ depressing Eurostyle gray sets — built for this co-production by WNO, the Houston Grand Opera and the English National Opera — were derivative and tedious. While the Act I factory was OK, the final two acts unfolded in a claustrophobic room resembling a padded cell, seemingly designed on a dime by inept existentialist carpenters with a striking flair for the obvious.

Equally off-putting was director David Alden’s insistence on nearly always keeping his characters physically distant from one another — an intrusive and awkward re-interpretation of an opera that pivots on the power of redemptive love.

Plenty of good seats remain for “Jenufa,” so there’s ample opportunity to book a marvelous evening of relatively modern opera. Just ignore the production’s Sartrian tics, and revel in the music of a great but somewhat neglected composer who has much to say to our own chaotic century.

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WHO: Washington National Opera

WHAT: Leos Janacek’s “Jenufa”

WHEN: May 10, 16, 24 at 7:30 p.m.; May 19, 21 at 7 p.m.; May 13 at 2 p.m.

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