With only a single opera in a typical season, performed twice, Long Beach Opera has to make every production and every performance matter. This year the opera is Janacek's "Jenufa." Seen Sunday afternoon at the Carpenter Center of Cal State Long Beach, it mattered.
"Jenufa," Janacek's first important opera and the first to employ his distinctive style of emphatically repeated melodic and rhythmic cells, is also one of the first great psychological works of the 20th century (it was begun in 1895, completed in 1903 and revised and modernized five years later).
At its most basic, "Jenufa" is a study in how passions twist, turn, entwine. Love turns to hate, hate to love. Through intensely expressive music that reflects the flickering change of emotions as if it were a kind of aural brain scan, the Czech composer turns his heroine's struggle to overcome victimization into a kind of epic theater.
This unaffected village girl, in love with Steva and pregnant with his son, is also loved by Laca. In a fit of jealousy, Laca cuts Jenufa's face with a knife, making her no longer attractive to Steva. Unable to bear seeing Jenufa's life seemingly ruined, her stepmother kills the baby to pave the way for reconciliation between Jenufa and Laca. In one of the all-time great triumphs of operatic forgiveness, Jenufa ultimately embraces Laca and her stepmother. Goodness in Janacek can only be achieved by transcending violence.
"Jenufa" is mature drama. Long Beach Opera's production team is four young women, without major opera credits. Their inexperience showed, perhaps, in their tendency to overemphasize the opera's emotional intensity. The performance began at a fevered pitch with the danger of having nowhere to go but down. Yet, despite a few miscalculations, it didn't. Instead, the talented team found exactly what it is that makes "Jenufa" gripping theater and didn't let go.
Darcy Scanlin's disorienting set is extraordinary. We look down on the village from tops of buildings. From this perspective, the back of the stage is the ground, leaving us in a vertiginous world skewered by 90 degrees, a point of view that made Janacek's music and the opera's moral dilemmas all the more unsettling. Only with the resolution of the drama, and a brilliant sunrise effect (by lighting designer Geoff Korf), was there relief from this the visual sensation of vertigo.
Director Isabel Milenski has, on the surface, a relatively straightforward approach. There is no Postmodern updating, as she and Scanlin did two years ago in their Long Beach Opera debut, a small-scale production of Jacopo Peri's 400-year-old opera "Euridice." Anna Bjornsdotter's elegant costumes seem to move the opera forward in time maybe half a century, but we are still in a small Czech town. What is radical is the way Milenski strives to position every shade of feeling directly in your face and the degree to which she is able to get the singers to commit themselves to doing just that.
In the title role, Lisa Willson made the least impressive first impression of the cast, but she may have been saving herself in this demanding role. She seemed to find her voice about the same time Jenufa begins to discover her own inner strength. By the time of her rapturous final duet with Laca, she sounded an altogether luminous soprano, silvery and sure.
Willson had extremely strong singers to play off of, and none more so than Katherine Ciesinski. Her Kostelnicka, Jenufa's stern stepmother who murders the baby, was a wild, half-crazed presence, a force of nature. At its extreme, that wildness just about took her over the top vocally and dramatically, but her skating at the emotional precipice in an already dizzying production was dazzling. Daniel Cafiero brought a swaggering affability to Steva. Roy Cornelius Smith's impressive tenor made him a powerful Laca. Kathryn Day was the comforting Grandmother Buryja. Others in the smaller roles were equally effective.
Matching Milenski's theatrical intensity was that of Andreas Mitisek's from the pit. Indeed, director and conductor almost seemed to be egging each other on. That resulted in strong, commanding playing from the orchestra. But it also meant pushing the singers ruthlessly. Many oversang to compete with the mighty sound from the orchestra, sacrificing the text. The opera was sung in English, a compromise given that Janacek fit his musical lines so closely to Czech. But little of the English was understood as the singers strove for volume, and the importance the composer placed upon the text was even further diminished.
Still, there is no denying that this is opera with an immediacy all too rare. And as a final kudos to the company, the chorus was a delight singing and executing Tonya Lockyer's imaginative choreography.
"Jenufa," Long Beach Opera, Saturday, 8 p.m., Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts, Cal State Long Beach, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach, $30-$100. (562) 439-2580.