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Lyric Opera cast brightens the somber “Jenůfa”

Gaetano Donizetti’s breeze towards the end of the month “Daughter of the Regiment” and composer Leoš Janáček’s “Jenůfa” share the stage at the Lyric Opera, but not much else.

“Jenůfa” was premiered in 1904, a year after the illness and death of Janáček’s daughter. This trauma seeped into every brutal detail of “Jenůfa.” When we meet the title character (soprano Lise Davidsen, in her highly anticipated first lyric), she is pregnant out of wedlock and in love with the alcoholic, immature father of her child, Števa (tenor Richard Trey Smagur). Unfortunately for Jenůfa, Števa’s brooding half-brother Laca (tenor Pavel Černoch) has been ignored by their family. Moreover loves it. During a struggle, the embittered Laca cuts a gash in Jenůfa’s face, declaring that he is the only one who can still love her even if she is disfigured.

Laca isn’t the only one who hilariously shows how much he loves Jenůfa. Kostelnička (soprano Nina Stemme, last at Lyric), Jenůfa’s stepmother and a moral exemplar in parochial Moravian villages, shelters Jenůfa while Števa settles in with her baby, ostensibly to protect her from others’ disapproval. . Actually Kostelnička is more interested in him have A God-fearing reputation, not Jenůfa’s. When it becomes clear that Jenůfa cannot re-enter society as a single mother, Kostelnička tranquilizes her and drowns her son in an icy stream.

Somehow, the opera ends with Jenůfa forgiving them both and marrying Laca as well. Come on, let’s.

Although “Jenůfa” was his first major opera, Janáček was already a talented playwright at that time. He adapted his libretto from the play “Její pastorkyňa” (“Stepdaughter”) by Gabriela Preissová; His dazzling music, whose techniques and orchestrations foreshadowed the rest of the long 20th century, is full of symbolism. Flowers are a recurring motif in both the libretto and original director Claus Guth’s production, first seen at London’s Royal Opera House: Guth anticipates “Jenůfa’s” happy ending by including yellow flowers in each act. (In Act 3, they carpet the floor, a contrast to the white-walled anonymity and symmetrical furniture placements of the rest of Michael Levine’s set. already seen to the designer’s fall “Eugene Onegin,” seen here in 2017.) Most effectively, the shutters of Kostelnička’s house—symbols of insidiousness and shame—inspire a set piece that acts as a second act throughout.

The same goes for the high points of Guth’s production. The rest are harsh and cynical. In Act 2, we catch up with Jenůfa trapped in a cage-like nest of iron bed frames; a double reference to her pregnancy and her drug-induced sleep – an interesting idea in concept, if not in execution. Within minutes, an anthropomorphic crow and a bloody, shirtless child actor cross the stage. Why don’t you just shout?Števa Jr. about to die!” through a megaphone? It would be more oblique and cheaper.

By changing the gender of the supporting role in Act 1, Guth eliminates the libretto’s own subtle foreshadowing. Jano, the loving shepherd whom Jenůfa taught to read, jana (Ryan Opera Center soprano Kathryn Henry, her voice sweet and bright). Jano serves no real dramatic function other than representing the child Jenůfa’s son might grow up to be; It’s even more painful because it’s Jano who announces in Act 3 that the baby’s body has been found. Janáček convinces Guth perfectly, but he prefers to play pickleball with the giant crow.

Although it is a production that makes underestimating the intelligence of the audience an Olympic sport, the reason why “Jenůfa” is still worth seeing is due to its musical talent. Starring Davidsen and Stemme and featuring Czech phenom Jakub Hrůša, it’s rare for Lyric to bring so many stars under one roof. recent Chicago Symphony favorite – to carry in the pit.

Davidsen sang Jenůfa in the concert version of the opera two years ago, but her Lyrics appearance marks her first appearance in the role. Industrialists undoubtedly realize this: Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb attended Wednesday’s matinee.

I hope this is a role he lives in for years to come, so others can experience what Chicago viewers did last week. Davidsen’s epic voice emanates from every level in the Lyric’s Ardis Krainik Theatre, fluid and clear like a stream. Jenůfa seems like a cardboard cutout in Janáček’s libretto – one of its few but glaring weaknesses – but Davidsen manages to make her feel whole, tactile. Travel to hear it alone.

Pavel Cernoch and Lise Davidsen at the opera "Jenufa" by Chicago Lyric Opera.

Davidsen’s fellow managers all needed some time to warm up to his power. Besides her impressive entrance in Act 1, Stemme has made a beautiful transition from her once critically acclaimed role as Jenůfa to the redder Kostelnička, with her big voice and chillingly icy top. Smagur was both bland and disheveled in his Act 1 scenes, and not just because of his fake drunkenness. Luckily, he sobered up vocally in the final two acts, his delivery evolving into an intense tenor cannonball.

His foil, Černoch, is a musical and dramatic magnet who moves around the stage with a coiled-spring intensity that builds into an exciting, sparkling, heartfelt sound. Laca is the most difficult to render convincingly, and Černoch pulls it off.

Mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti is mighty as Grandmother Buryja; With a welcome splash of personality in this otherwise faceless staging, all of “Jenůfa’s” matriarchs are strong and steely. Tara Wheeker steps in admirably to replace Ryan Opera Center soprano Lindsey Reynolds as Barena, a friendly villager who appears in Act 3. Bass-baritone Wayne Tigges and mezzo Katherine DeYoung bring liveliness and beautiful vocalism in their brief cameos in the same pitch. The headman of the village and his wife.

The Lyric orchestra, conducted by Hrůša, raises its own high standard by producing a magnificent and bold sound. Many great “Jenůfa” are skinny and hard-edged, but Hrůša has more meat on her bones. Syncopes fill every inch of their allotted space; dotted rhythms are flexible; Lyrical lines wrapped in the text of the libretto like a well-tailored suit. One of them just wished he’d put the brakes on a few key scenes: Between Hrůša’s forward momentum and Guth’s chaotic stage action, such as Jenůfa’s stabbing and its fallout, it feels like a blink-and-you’ve-missed-it moment.

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But Kostelnička’s declaration of baby Števa’s death in Act 2, with a pause and wild chords, has exactly the sickening effect you’d expect: one two. They ring in one’s ears long after all is forgiven.

Hannah Edgar is a freelance critic.

Review: “Jenůfa” (3 stars)

When: until 26 November

Where: Chicago Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Drive

Running time: 3 hours 5 minutes (including two breaks)

Tickets: $41-$339 at 312-827-5600 and www.lyricopera.org

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