Monday, October 14, 2013

Musical Invective: Jenufa

As several guessed, the opera in the previous posting was Leoš Janáček's wonderful Jenufa, a work that was greeted with a certain amount of derision on its US premiere in 1925. It took a while for public and musical opinion to catch up with the great Moravian composer's music.

Here are a bunch of reviews from the Metropolitan Opera Archives. You can tell how new and different Janáček's music was for these reviewers; they all manage to find different ways to misunderstand it. "Not really an opera," "prettily light comic material" (!), "conventional operatic formulae," "Janáček's colorless music" (!!!), "The best that one can say for the music is that it does not ruin the histrionic effects." Etc.

Review in the Evening Journal by Irving Weil
From time to time Mr. Giulio Gatti-Casazza seeks to fatten the German repertoire at the Metropolitan Opera, but in spite of such bits of promising nourishment as he picks up here and there, the repertoire seems to remain statically Wagnerian. Young Erich Korngold's "Die tote Stadt" and Max von Schilling's "Mona Lisa" do not appear to have been ecstatically absorbed, and the General Director's latest experiment, "Jenufa," offered up for the first time on Saturday afternoon, is not likely to do any better.

The new opera-new, however, only to New York, for it has been available any time these twenty years-is a setting by the Bohemian, Lèos Janacek, of a tale by Gabriella Preissova. Neither of these names, of course, means anything here, for none of Janacek's music heretofore got across the Atlantic and the librettist is an unknown. Janacek, who is now seventy, is a Checho-Slovakian-a Moravian, to be more specific-and his opera is a Moravian "Cavalleria Rusticana," minus anything remotely as good as Mascagni's music.

Why Mr. Gatti-Casazza ever came to look hopefully upon "Jenufa" would be a mystery if one did not happen to think that he has in his company a Bohemian conductor, a Bohemian ballet master who, nevertheless, is given to offering advice, and a Moravian prima donna. Probably all three were too much for him and therefore, "Jenufa." But no one ought to take it into his head from this that "Jenufa" is the worst opera we have ever heard. As a fact, it is a long way from that. The unforgettable "Mona" of Horatio Parker, the "Cyrano de Bergerac" of Walter Damrosch, "The Polish Jew" of-who was it wrote that one?-were immeasurably worse. Indeed, now we have begun cataloguing, we can think of a score or so far, far worse. But "Jenufa" is quite worse enough.

For one thing, the opera tells a tale of the Moravian contodini over which it is difficult to become greatly excited. Jenufa is ruined, as they used to put it in "Bertha, the Beautiful Sewing-Machine Girl," by a young Don Juan of the Moravian hills, and being that sort he refuses to make her an honest woman, as they still put it in Max Marcin melodrama. Her stepmother conceals her till the child is born and then tells the young Don Juan's brother, who is also crazy about Jenufa, the whole story. The child, she adds, is dead. The brother then agrees to marry her. Meanwhile the stepmother takes the child and drops it under the ice in the offstage river and tells Jenufa it died. But the little thing is of course found by the villagers and Stepmother confesses.

It is easily conceivable that such a tale, or something like it, could be made a gripping affair. One has only to think of Sydney Howard's current peasant drama, "They Knew What They Wanted" with Pauline Lord, or of "Cavalleria Rusticana" itself for that matter, to realize this. But there are a dozen reasons why it isn't. One of them is that the Metropolitan Opera House is the Metropolitan Opera House. Another that Maria Jeritza, the Jenufa is no Pauline Lord; still another that the German translation is either poor stuff or the original is the same. And, chief of them all, that Janacek's music is a pretilly light comic matter trying to characterize the tragic. This music flows along gently and unobtrusively, with a Wagnerian twist and turn every now and again, but never achieves so much as a profile of the drama. Mr. Janacek has theories about song-speech in opera, but he forgot or was unable to make his song-speech say or sing anything definite or apt.

So far as the performance on Saturday went, Margaret Matzenauer, the stepmother, Buryja, walked away with the opera. She was the one person on the stage in whom you had any belief, the only one who put anything of the tragic into the tragedy. Her acting, to be sure, was of the type sometimes designated as all over the place, but, anyhow, it made its point. And, after all, peasants, we suppose, are not expected to be subtle. Her singing was matzenauerian, as usual, but it was rather less atonal than customarily.

Mme. Jeritza's Jenufa seemed to be a girl who, in spite of those Moravian costumes, ought to have known how to take care of herself better than she did. She had her moments, to be sure, and as nearly always, contributed her acrobatic bit, but she was scarcely impressive. And her singing, for the most part, was exceedingly loud. So was Rudolf Laubenthal's, who was the local Moravian Don Juan. He seemed to have the heroic tenor complex for the afternoon and it didn't agree with him very well. Mr. Bodanzky conducted. Mr. Von Wymental did some excellent stage directing.

Here's Ernest Newman:

  "What a crew" said a well known dramatic critic of the characters in one of the Ibsen plays. 'What a crew!" we may say also of the people of "Jenufa" that had its first performance (in German) at the Metropolitan Opera House on Saturday. A more complete collection of undesirables and incredibles has never previously appeared in opera.

To [the] crude story, Janacek has written music that is obviously the work of a man who, however many works he may have to his credit, is only a cut above the amateur. The best things in the score are the national songs and dances, which are charming. For the bigger moments he has mostly nothing but conventional operatic formulae. It is a little puzzling, to the non-Czech listener, to find cheerful national dance rhythms running though the most tragic scenes. Apparently in these Central European countries, you do everything to these rhythms; you shave yourself to a Krakoviak, cut a man's throat to a Mazurka, and bury him to a Czardas…

The company labored hard to make these absurd stage figures credible to us, but Mr. Laubenthal, for all his intelligence, could not bring them to life, and Mr. Oehman seemed none too happy as Laca. Mme. Matzenauer was duly convulsive as Burya, and admirably realistic, for naturally you could not expect a poor woman with so much on her mind to sing with perfect melodiousness. I did not see Jenufa anywhere, but her clothes were worn by Mme. Jeritza, who, if she was more self conscious than I imagine the real Jeritza would have been, sang infinitely better. The opera was charmingly staged, and the costumes were a delight to the eye.

 Lawrence Gilman in the Herald Tribune:
The Metropolitan's production of the work is admirable. The opera is beautifully mounted, intelligently directed, and effectively impersonated. It is not easy to imagine a more perfect embodiment of the role of the ill-used peasant girl than Jeritza's. Her handling of the scene in which she learns of the death of her child is as beautiful and affecting a thing as she has done here; it is on a par with her Tosca for veracity and skill and power. We shall not soon forget her moving delivery of "So starb es, mein süsses Herzenskind" And Mme. Matzenauer has done nothing in recent years as adroit and fine as her performance of the Sexton's Widow - save for those few moments at the close of the second act when she overstresses her indication of superstitious dread by excess of movement and gesture. She should study Chaliapin s exquisite economy of movement in his acting of a similar scene in "Boris."

Mr. Laubenthal, as the perfidious Steva, bettered by a good deal his previous impersonations here - his first act bun(sic) is a thing to marvel at. The Laca of Martin Oehman (the Swedish tenor who is new this season at the Metropolitan) was an efficient performance, praiseworthy for its intelligence and its quiet force. These were the chief roles; the others were for the most part capably done.

Mr. Bodanzky conducted devotedly and with authority, as he always does. The settings are delightful, and the charming costumes, with their gorgeous embroidery, their furred coats and their captivating flowered hats would lure us again and again to the Metropolitan, even though we had to. listen to Janacek's colorless music. The audience, a huge one, was extraordinarily enthusiastic. the Metropolitan has played a winning card. "Jenufa" is better than "I Compagnacci."

Review signed S. L. L. in the Philadelphia Public Ledger

Famous Diva and Mme. Matzenauer Magnificent in Exceedingly Intense Drama Given by Metropolitan Company

One of the most curious "operas" ever given in Philadelphia was presented by the Metropolitan Opera Company of New York at the Academy of Music last evening when Janacek's "Jenufa" was sung by a group of stars to a stupendously powerful orchestra accompaniment led by Artur Bodanzky. The story of the opera is a singularly disagreeable one, but it gives full scope to the extraordinarily dramatic powers of Maria Jeritza and Margaret Matzenauer, both of whom improved their opportunities in this line to the utmost.

Musically the opera is in a class by itself, for nothing like it in musical content has ever been heard here. It is really not opera at all, but incidental music accompanying an exceedingly intense drama. The work follows no precedent. There are many themes which recur throughout the opera, but this recurrence has nothing in common with the Wagnerian "leit- motif," because they are repeated virtually in toto and without development of that reference to previous characters or scenes which is carried out to so high a degree by the master of Bayreuth.

At the same time, it must be admitted that the music never intrudes upon the dramatic action. In the intensity of some of the scenes the hearer is entirely unconscious of any music at all, which shows in itself that it fits the dramatic situation. Did it intrude, it would be incongruous and therefore unfitting. Nevertheless, it is by no means great music, for the thrills which the work contains (and there are many) are entirely dramatic and not musical ones. The best that one can say for the music is that it does not ruin the histrionic effects.

But there are unquestionably points in the opera where the music rises to considerable heights. The greatest of these is the monologue of the Sexton's Widow (Mme. Matzenauer) where she decides on the death of the baby as the best way out of a most undesirable situation. Also the ensuing scene, where Jenufa (Mme. Jeritza) discovers the absence of the child, and again in the same act where the explanation is made.

The opera was superbly staged and magnificently acted by Mesdames Jeritza and Matzenauer. There are defects of operatic and libretto techniques throughout, as both the second and third acts end in anti-climaxes and the emotional tension in both these acts is too long sustained for the hearer. Had the curtain been rung down when Jenufa discovers the loss of the child and sinks faintingly against the locked door, the audience, wrought to the highest emotional pitch of the evening, would have "gone crazy" to use a stage term. Instead, the explanation and the first love scene follow. There is a limit of emotional endurance to the audience as well as to the performers and Mesdames Jeritza and Matzenauer were manifestly "all in" when they responded to the curtain calls at the close of the act.

Columns more might be written of this unique opera. The tenors (it calls for two of these) were moderately good in the persons of Messers Laubenthal and Ohman and Kathleen Howard was very fine, vocally and dramatically, as Grandmother Buryja. The numerous lesser roles were well taken by Arnold Gabor, Ellen Dalossy, Grace Anthony, Charlotte Ryan and Marie Mattfeld. Mr. Bodanzky, with his usual lack of appreciation of the wonderful acoustics of the Philadelphia Academy of Music, allowed the orchestra to overpower the singers most of the time, even admitting that the orchestral parts are more important than the vocal ones.


Dr.B said...

In these reviewers' defense it should be noted that early performances of Jenufa were done in a version arranged by someone else.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Now that I did not know! Say more?

Robert Gordon said...

Here is a discussion of the textual problems of Jenufa. As you can see, they had mainly to do with the musical politics around the Prague premiere. It's amazing that this didn't really get sorted out until Charles Mackerras recorded the authentic version and shamed everyone else into dropping the corrupt version.

kalimac said...

The first reviewer seems confused about the differences among Bohemians, Moravians, and "Checho-Slovakians", a usage (and spelling) I've not seen before.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thank you, Rob!

K., yes, well, I suspect many people today would be confused by those distinctions too!

Robert Gordon said...

Also, Ernest Newman seems to think that the Krakoviak, Mazurka, and Czardas are Czech dances. Never heard of Dumka and Furiant, I guess. This is another example of one of the points in your original post: in those days Music = German Music, everything else is Other, why worry about distinctions among all that exotica.

And most of the time Ernest Newman was one of the good guys.

Michael Strickland said...

Look up Max Brod, Franz Kafka's old buddy in Prague and Janacek's promoter/translator/fixer. He was part of the German Jewish minority there and the only way something as exotic and provincial as "Jenufa" could be thought to be assimilated by the rest of the world was to put it into a language educated people spoke (German then, English now). Then the Director of the Prague Opera decided to smooth out all the weird dissonances for the world premiere that Janacek had written into the orchestration to make it more accessible to a general public, and you've got a genuinely adulterated masterpiece.

Robert Gordon is right. Charles Mackerras was a hero for excavating the original version and shaming the world into playing that henceforth. It's been a touchstone opera for me since the 1970s when I heard it live with Elizabeth Soderstrom and Sena Jurinac in the 1970s at the SF Opera. Wonderful to know that the rest of the world is catching up to its beauty and mastery.