By CHARLES WARD, Houston Chronicle, Jan. 25, 2004
Houston Grand Opera has opened its winter season with Leos
Janácek's great but under-appreciated tragedy Jenufa. Compelling
singing, a riveting production and Janácek's luminous music
combined for a memorable evening Friday at the Wortham Theater
Premiered on Jan. 21, 1904, Jenufa was the first in a string of
Janácek operas that, since the 1950s, have been recognized as
major parts of the 20th-century repertoire. With Jenufa, HGO is
completing a trilogy of productions staged for American soprano
Catherine Malfitano. (The others were Katya Kabanova and The
Unlike old-fashioned dramas such as Puccini's Tosca or Verdi's La
Traviata, where the tragedy is straight-forward and the emotional
impact on the listener momentary, the three-act Jenufa can bore into
the modern psyche.
It explores issues seemingly ripped from contemporary headlines: a
dysfunctional family, unthinkable behavior from a religious zealot
unglued by sexual behavior, and, à la current corporate crooks,
the consequences of a web of deceit created by a person covering up a
These and other themes play out through two very strong soprano roles
(an unusual trait for an opera).
Jenufa is a pregnant young woman, desperate to marry mill owner
Steva. Her life disintegrates when, first, Steva's half-brother Laca
scars her cheek with his knife and, then, her stepmother Kostelnicka
tells her the baby boy, born out of wedlock, has died. She retreats
into an emotional coma.
The religious Kostelnicka keeps the scandal quiet by hiding Jenufa.
After the baby boy is born, she tries to get Steva to marry Jenufa.
He refuses -- Jenufa is no longer pretty. Kostelnicka then turns to
Laca, who has loved Jenufa from childhood and still wants to marry
In a moment of desperation, Kostelnicka lies to Laca and says the
child has died. To maintain the false story, she then throws the baby
boy in the frozen river.
The body is found in the spring, on the day when Laca and Jenufa
marry. Jenufa is saved from lynch-mob justice only when Kostelnicka
confesses. Jenufa forgives her and, finally, accepts that maybe Laca
does love her and she can return his love despite the scar she bears.
Janácek's music is rooted in the old world of folk music, with its
simple, consonant harmonies, and the new world of rhythm and melody
freedom. He underscores the drama with now luscious, now astringent
sounds that suck the listener into the drama unfolding onstage.
Director David Alden and his designers have given the singers a spare
but intense production. The main room of Kostelnicka's house, the
setting for Acts 2 and 3, is a claustrophobic triangle with a low
ceiling and a single large hanging light (like the stereotype of an
When the mob tries to get at Jenufa, Alden and his team provide a
dramatic gesture, carrying the ambiguous suggestion that the world is
crashing in on Jenufa and, yet, her claustrophobic existence is
The vocal star of the evening was Czech tenor Stefan Margita, in his
Houston debut. With clear, aching beauty, he first painted Laca as
young, impetuous, perhaps even a little dim-witted. Then, by
darkening his voice a little, he made Laca a more sober man chastened
by his cruelty to Jenufa and yet eager to begin a new life with her.
Soprano Patricia Racette sang radiantly as she moved through Jenufa's
rampaging emotions. In her great Act 2 outburst on discovering that
her baby is missing, then dead, she transformed herself from a
vocally alluring singer to a mesmerizing singing actress.
In her first performance as Kostelnicka, Malfitano gave another
dramatically riveting performance. Looking menacingly austere in
widow's black, she commanded the stage to the very end when she
shouted her guilt to save Jenufa's life.
Tenor Raymond Very, a graduate of the Houston Grand Opera Studio,
gave Steva a loutish bravura, from the moment he arrived on a
motorcycle to the finale when his new fiancee dumps him on learning
about the truth of Jenufa and his child.
Among others in the cast, Dale Travis brought a brusque sensibility
to the mill Foreman, who seems to be the only person who recognizes
what's motivating all these mad people. Judith Christin was burly and
no-nonsense as Grandmother Burykovka, who tries as best she can to
contain the familial mess.
Conductor Dennis Russell Davies and the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra
provided a first-class accompaniment -- lithe, propulsive and
Jenufa, staged by Houston Grand Opera
When: Saturday and Feb. 4 and 7
Where: Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas
Tickets: $14-$154 at 713-228-6737