Monday, February 23, 2015

Bieto's industrially fluorescent Jenůfa at Stuttgart Opera

Rebecca von Lipinski as Jenůfa
For three days the sun was reluctant to make an appearance over Stuttgart and it was much the same in Spanish director Calixto Bieito's industrially fluorescent, sunless production of Jenůfa. Realised by set designer Susanne Gschwender and Ingo Krügler's costumes as a modern working class ghetto, its entire cast of seemingly psychologically disturbed characters are immersed in an environment deprived of hope. Coupled with the unrelenting tension of Leoš Janáček's music, the eponymous Jenůfa's struggle is palpable in a soul-consuming theatrical experience.

Rebecca von Lipinski's Jenůfa showed strong behavioural complexity and vocal expression, none more so than when she learns of her child's death though is unaware of the true circumstances. Her character was both full of outward emotion and cold reserve.

From her authoritative entrance Angela Denoke was outstanding as she sinks into a deranged state as Jenůfa's threatening stepmother, shockingly battering Jenůfa's child to death on a kitchen table. It's handled even far more gruesomely than an expected drowning. Denoke's depiction cleverly tangles her murderous reasons. Was it really an attempt to save Jenůfa's future, a selfish attempt to hide shame or an act of unfathomable insanity? It marks the climax at which the complexity of what we see and what we don't understand about every character is magnified.

With stentorian magnitude, a chilling mental instability characterised Pavel Černoch's dangerously good Laca, who is in love with Jenůfa but ridiculed by her teasing. The jealous, ticking time-bomb he is, slashes her face in a grotesquely fine piece of theatre to mar her beauty in order to ruin her hope of being with Steva. Loving Jenůfa only for her beauty then abandoning her and his child, Steva was performed solidly by Gergely Németi with an attractive and seductive vocal warmth which counterbalances his aloofness and rebelliousness.

As Act 2 segues into Act 3 and Jenůfa's silent grief is mulled, visual intensity escalates as a machinists' factory floor is created with choreographic smoothness. Heralding the last act, a baby's prolonged, agonising cries are heard over the set-build as the banality of repetitious work forms the setting for which the story's shocking discovery is exposed.

Conductor Sylvain Cambreling infused the work with a roller-coaster ride of grim horror, especially so at each enhanced dramatic apex. Precision playing emanated from the pit but the underlying angst which the strings thread the work with felt disappointingly underplayed.

Bieito begins and ends the opera with the sound of an uncomfortable laughter. In the finale, even when Jenůfa and Laca exchange a laugh, it seems to suggest things will be better, perhaps short-lived, but never permanent. It's some of the darkest theatre you'll likely experience and, paradoxically, bright fluorescent light feeds it.

Photo courtesy © A.T. Schaefer

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