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JANACEK IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST

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“Think Big,” exhorts the oddly worded insert in the program magazine.

“Remember the days of our childhood when cultural attractions played to the Pacific Northwest ‘provinces,’ built our aspirations of having local cultural institutions, and we waved goodby to the artists (as they left with our money in their pockets to spend in New York)?” The question isn’t entirely rhetorical. This is a pitch for money.

“Opera cannot be and never will be self-sustaining. At best, ticket sales will cover only half the operating costs. . . . Seattle Opera took a risk when it decided to give you a leap in artistic quality. That leap has caused the first unbalanced ledger since 1964: We are $800,000 in the red.

The final phrase isn’t just italicized. It is printed in red ink.

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Things are tough everywhere, especially operatic things. For a company like the Metropolitan, an $800,000 deficit would strike fear in few hearts. For a company like Seattle’s, it must be cause for genuine consternation.

The Seattle Opera has, of course, been thinking big for a long time. It has been presenting Wagner’s “Ring,” in British as well as German, for a decade of summers, and is about to embark on a major scenic overhaul of that massive project. Under its dauntless founder, Glynn Ross, the company has undertaken ambitious educational programs, surveyed a broad repertory, boosted young Americans, encouraged local talent, dabbled--once in a while--in progressive staging techniques and imported a fair share of stellar attractions.

Opera in Ross’ Seattle often bore a bargain-basement look. Consistency of musical and dramatic values could not always be taken for granted. Some experiments failed, and some compromises hurt. Still, the creatures were stirring here, and, wonder of wonders, the exchequer eluded disaster.

Two years ago, the Seattle board transferred its trust to the eager but inexperienced hands of a former music critic from New York: Speight Jenkins. Ross moved onward if not necessarily upward to preach his special operatic gospel in the wilds of Arizona.

Jenkins’ appointment caused some scoffing at the outset. Some people regarded him as a managerial dilettante whose chief attribute was the national visibility that had come with a few stints hosting Met telecasts. The skeptics, however, didn’t count on Jenkins’ passionate, obsessive zeal.

He may have succumbed to a few problems, here and there, involving purse strings, but he also seems to have demonstrated remarkable commitment, stamina and concern for detail. Last weekend, he introduced Leos Janacek’s “Jenufa"--a k a “Jeji Pastorkyna” or “Her Stepdaughter"--to the Pacific Northwest and enjoyed an artistic triumph.

It would be silly to pretend that this was a perilous avant-garde gamble. After all, Janacek began this wonderful opera, his fourth, in 1894. The delayed premiere took place in Brno back in 1904.

A German “Jenufa” arrived at the Met 20 years later, for a very brief stay, with Maria Jeritza and Margarete Matzenauer undertaking the crucial central challenges. A legendary Vienna revival in 1948 found Ljuba Welitsch searing the title role. Covent Garden paid its respects in 1956, with Amy Shuard and Sylvia Fisher. Chicago followed suit three years later, with Rafael Kubelik conducting and the Dutch soprano Gre Brouwenstijn sharing the stage with Fisher.

San Francisco first saw the opera in 1969. The full impact of the production in question wasn’t realized, however, until 1980 when Elisabeth Soederstroem assumed the title role and Sena Jurinac--herself a former Jenufa--portrayed her tragically overbearing stepmother.

Not surprisingly, Los Angeles has yet to witness a professional staging of the opera, though Jan Popper did venture a workshop version at UCLA in 1957. One Lotfallah Mansouri--then a tenor, now a most successful director-impresario called Lotfi--sang the misunderstood hero. USC took its turn, with Polly Jo Baker as a luminous Jenufa, a dozen years later.

Admired by connoisseurs for more than 80 years, “Jenufa” has been reasonably well represented in the record catalogue. It endures on Czech stages beside the best of Dvorak and Smetana. With a free translation and some well-intentioned structural meddling by Max Brod, it has become something of a staple in German opera houses. Still, it hardly ranks with “Carmen” and “La Boheme” in international popularity, and it poses severe problems of style and tone.

Jenkins wasn’t playing it safe when he brought “Jenufa” to Seattle, especially with the red ink looming. The audiences Saturday night and Sunday afternoon turned out to be generally enthusiastic. Still, the public did not turn out in vast numbers, and one noticed defections in the ranks as the performances wore on. Operagoers from Aix to Zagreb like opera best when they can sit back, relax and savor the pretty tunes, but Janacek made stringent demands on his listeners.

It isn’t that “Jenufa” lacks pretty tunes. The opera abounds in sensuous, soaring though terse melodies, both in the vocal lines and in the orchestra. It makes appreciative use of some zesty folk elements, too.

It isn’t that the libretto is silly or pallid. Janacek’s tale of love, deceit, passion, agony, murder, sacrifice and ultimate redemption through forgiveness in rural Moravia is based on a celebrated novel by Gabrielle Preisssova.

The problem involves the language. Janacek’s vocal lines are irrevocably associated with regional Czech speech patterns, repetitive nuances and conversational inflections. If the opera is performed in the original Czech, no damage can be done to the composer’s intentions but essential verbal points will escape even the best-prepared foreigner. If the opera is performed in English, the non-Czech listener can respond to the poetic subtleties and psychological complexities, but the fundamental musical motivation gets lost in translation.

Either way, some compromise is unavoidable.

Jenkins & Co. opted for a new English translation by Yveta Synek Graff, edited by Robert T. Jones. It isn’t always idiomatic. It doesn’t always sound natural. However, it does make the plot intelligible, it does focus the inherent conflicts with painful clarity, and it does make a noble effort to accommodate the ebb and flow of the original words while approximating the desired vowel sounds.

To protect Janacek’s interests in the pit, Jenkins engaged Jiri Belohlavek, a young conductor from Prague. It turned out to be a wise choice. Belohlavek made his excellent orchestra, composed of members of the Seattle Symphony, brood and soar and shimmer with dramatic sensitivity. He also gave his singers ardent support, even mouthing the strange English text in sympathy.

In the old days, Seattle presented each of its operas in two incarnations. One series, dubbed “gold,” offered international casts and the original language. A less costly proposition was the “silver” series, which enlisted young American singers and an English text. For “Jenufa,” both ensembles were all-American, both sang in English, and neither was exactly studded with stars. The chief distinction between the two versions seemed to lie in the ticket price, the best seat in the house fetching $42 Saturday night and $18.50 at the Sunday matinee. Ironically, the “silver” “Jenufa” proved superior in several ways to its “gold” counterpart.

Both performances used stark sets by Leni Bauer-Ecsy borrowed from San Francisco, a rather kitschy lighting scheme by Joan Sullivan and new, authentic costumes by Dunya Ramicova. But the fundamental similarities did not prevent the knowing stage director, Stephen Wadsworth, from giving his singing actors considerable leeway in matters of interpretive stance.

Judith Haddon, the “gold” Jenufa, stressed giddy, youthful impetuosity and sang with generalized spinto splendor. Kaaren Erickson, her “silver” counterpart, employed a wider expressive scale, made more of the text, and, despite somewhat slender vocal resources, rose radiantly to the high climaxes. Haddon was admirable. Erickson was heartbreaking.

The pivotal force in the opera is the Kostelnicka (Sexton’s wife), a stern, matriarchal figure who is driven to infanticide by a distorted sense of moral rectitude. The role, which can be played either for terror or for pity, represents an awesome challenge for a great dramatic soprano or, under duress, for a brave mezzo. Jenkins presented two brave, vastly dissimilar mezzos.

Marvellee Cariaga stressed control and restraint on opening night, dominating the stage with cool, quiet, towering dignity. This Kostelnicka fell victim to her own rigid intelligence, accepted her fate with stoic resolve, and, apart from some ill-supported tones, sang with gleaming power.

Clarity James (previously known as Carolyne James) played the Kostelnicka as a woman teetering on the brink of mental collapse. Nervous, febrile, increasingly desperate, she took wild vocal as well as theatrical chances and succeeded against the odds. This was a heroic performance that found its devastating climax in something remarkably akin to a mad scene, a performance of emotional intensity and vocal grandeur.

Neither Cariaga nor James, it should be noted, succumbed to the common temptation to play the Kostelnicka as a nasty, old, religion-crazed hag.

Jenkins found not one but two incipient Heldentenor giants to portray the unhappy Laca. Timothy Jenkins, a promising Parsifal at the Met, made a big, burly bear of Jenufa’s devoted lover and sang with dark, eminently forceful tone. Gary Lakes, more open and innocent in manner, offered a lighter, brighter, equally compelling sound.

Steva--Laca’s caddish, happy-go-lucky, lyrical half-brother--was performed with poise and flair by both Peter Kazaras and Allan Glassman. The latter, incidentally, seems to have transformed himself auspiciously from baritone to tenor.

The unchanging supporting cast included Geraldine Decker, vocally rough and dramatically smooth as Grandmother Buryja; Karen Hall, sprightly and sweet as the shepherd boy Jano, and Archie Drake, authoritative and crusty as the Mayor.

Meanwhile in Los Angeles. . . .


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