Sunday, February 19, 2017

Pay Attention.

A few weeks ago, Steve Smith sent a link out into the world on Twitter, and included his opinion that it showed some strong arts reporting from the Village Voice, after a period of, well, neglecting arts coverage by laying off most or all of their arts staff. Steve is a great writer and a smart guy, so I clicked the link and read the article.

Just this once, I gotta say: Steve was wrong.

Tara Isabella Burton wrote the article in question, and if you haven't seen her name in the NY classical music press much, it might be because she is currently a graduate student at Oxford, working on a doctorate in theology and fin de siècle French literature. She has published a number of articles on religion, culture, and place, according to her web site. Her portfolio has no music reviews listed except for the one Steve touted....and maybe it should stay that way.

Her article has the title "Strong Heroines Dominate the Met Opera This Season." Now, probably she didn't write the title, but she should have objected to it. For one thing, her article concerns three operas, Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin, Leos Janacek's Jenufa, and Richard Strauss's Salome.

Those three represent about one quarter of the Met's fall season, when the company also performed Tristan und IsoldeDon GiovanniL'Italiana in AlgeriLa BohemeGuillaume TellAidaNabucco, and The Magic Flute. Burton doesn't make much of a case for the "strong heroines," and I'd certainly like to see her explain why she picked out those three operas as particularly representing strong women. Isolde is no weakling, and neither is Donna Anna, for example.

My guess is that Jenufa, L'Amour de Loin, and Salome are the three operas she was able to see on a trip to NYC. Or maybe they had a special significance to her theological interests; Salome is, more or less, based on a Biblical story; the Saariaho addresses the relationship of Clémence, Countess of Tripoli, with God; Janacek's Kostelnicka is the widow of a deacon.

But there's a much, much more serious issue in the article than my quibbling above: one can reasonably ask where she was and what she was paying attention to during Act 2 of Jenufa, because she gets two major plot points completely wrong.

If you haven't seen the opera and you're not familiar with the plot, here's a nice big SPOILER WARNING for the rest of this blog post.

First, there's this rookie mistake:
... October and November saw the quiet, dark, and hauntingly realistic Jenufa, Czech composer Leoš Janá?ek's's 1904 portrait of the relationship between a young woman (Oksana Dyka), her mother-in-law (Karita Mattila), and their shared act of well-meaning infanticide. A verismo opera, it turns its focus away from mythic figures and toward the lives of average people.
No, actually, the Kostelnicka is not Jenufa's mother-in-law. Jenufa is unmarried at the beginning of the opera, and the Kostelnicka is her stepmother, Jenufa's father's second wife. Now, I haven't seen the Met's program, and maybe there's no family tree, which I consider to be absolutely essential for understanding who is who, how they are related, and why they are in the particular positions they're in at the start of the opera. But here's the Met's synopsis for the fall production, which makes the relationships perfectly clear.

Here's the even more serious howler; note that the Kostelnicka is now correctly identified as Jenufa's stepmother:*
Although Jenufa's circumstances are, in part, dictated by the men around her (after all, her accidental pregnancy serves as the driver for the plot), the crux of the opera lies in Jenufa's and her stepmother's choices and desires — for a fresh start, for a new life, for freedom. They kill Jenufa's unwanted bastard child because they seek to determine their own lives. Both survive to see the curtain fall, a feat for any female opera protagonist, gaining the possibility of at least bittersweet endings.
Well, no. That's not what happens at all. The Kostelnicka drugs Jenufa, then later picks up the baby, scurries into the night, and throws the child into a stream.

It's possible to miss the line or two where the drugging takes place, but if you are watching the stage, it is not possible to miss the fact that Jenufa is sound asleep when the baby is taken. And I'm confident that the production is clear on this point, because I have seen it in both LA and SF. I have some beefs with it, but lack of clarity isn't one of them.

These plot points are crucial for the overall moral arc of the opera. When the truth emerges about who killed the baby, Jenufa forgives the Kostelnicka, in one of the great moments of maturity and insight in all opera.

So the question arises: was Tara Isabella Burton asleep or in the bar for Act 2? And why did she not bother to read the synopsis of an opera that she was going to write about but evidently had not seen before? **

Update: I've sharpened the above a bit and added the paragraph starting "These plot points are crucial." I'd like to also address a comparatively minor issue in Burton's article: she refers to Jenufa as a verismo opera. I winced when I saw this. I understand why she arrived at this description, given that it's possible to look at the opera in the most lurid possible way: young woman is pregnant by a scoundrel who won't marry her, baby is murdered.

At least one of the critics who saw the US premiere in 1925 made the same mistake. Because the opera was sung in a German translation, because virtually no one in the US had any familiarity with Janacek's musical idiom, because a good synopsis might not have been available, I can forgive that error of a critic writing more than ninety years ago. But to make it now is to miss the moral complexities of the work. The Kostelnicka is motivated not only by love for Jenufa, as hard as that love is, but by her experience of being married to Jenufa's father, who was a wastrel in the same ways that Steva, father of Jenufa's baby, is a wastrel. Laca, Steva's half-brother, truly loves Jenufa, and takes extreme, abusive, and debatable measures to keep her from marrying Steva. Jenufa herself grows emotionally over the course of the opera, and, depending on the production, sees the potential bleakness of her eventual marriage to Laca, because they have come together not in joy, but in sorrow.

Compare the above with the superficially similar Cavalleria Rusticana, and you'll see why it does tis great opera a disservice to label it verismo.

Links to 1925 reviews of Jenufa, quoted on this blog:

* Bad copy-editing here, that this inconsistency slipped by.

** Look, you don't forget the plot of this one after the first time you see it.  You just don't.


Kyle L said...

On a side note: I wish there was a family tree in the playbill. Saw Jenufa at the Met in the fall. Would have made it easier to comprehend all the family connections. I only listened to the opera once before, and that was years ago.

As for the production I agree. That huge boulder that takes up the space of the whole house in Act 2? When Kostelnicka and Jenufa are worried about the baby being a burden to their lives? Subtle....

Lisa Hirsch said...

There's a Czech saying "I have a stone on my chest" that is the equivalent of the English "I have a heavy heart," and Tambosi....took it a little too literally for my taste. When I saw the production in October 2007, Mattila was in it too, playing Jenufa; she was the Kostenicka last year in SF.

Here's a blog post with the Buryja family tree. Even with it, the family relationships are a brain teaser.

Steve Smith said...

Yep, you know, I'm not going to hide from this. This was the tweet with which I shared the article:

> One more remarkable sign of resuscitated @villagevoice - amazing.

Which goes to show the danger in getting so excited to see a two-page article about opera of serious tone in the Voice, a once-great paper that quite recently was unreadable, that you blurt enthusiastically before reading it all the way through. My enthusiasm for what the paper's trying to do stands, but yes, you've raised a very serious issue here, even if you charitably ascribe the mother-in-law/stepmother thing to editing.

I solemnly promise to (try to) be more cautious.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I have made this particular mistake myself: getting enthused too soon, and then discovering my error. We all do it.

The Voice tried, but...is anyone left there who knows anything about opera?

I'm willing to bet that the author turned in copy with both mother-in-law and stepmother, and the VV editor didn't catch the inconsistency.

Cameron Kelsall said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the literal translation of the opening lines of Jenufa's Act Two aria something like: "Mother, my head feels heavy, like it's full of rocks"? I don't speak Czech, so I can't say, but that's how I've seen/heard it translated.

As for the VV piece...it's really quite bad. I mean, a piece of music "criticism" that never discusses how the MUSIC actually functions within the landscape of the piece?

Lisa Hirsch said...

Well....she wasn't trying to do that; she was more trying to make some kind of larger social point that she did not succeed in makiing. :)

I can't find an English-language libretto on line and my own printed copy is at home. "I have a rock on my heart" is what LA Opera told me in 2007 is the idiom.

Cameron Kelsall said...

Yeah, I get that she's trying to put the works in a larger cultural context. But especially with regard to L'Amour de Loin--an opera by a woman composer, conducted by a woman, in which two of the three roles are sung women--I feel like an actual music writer could have engaged the score and the specific musical performance in the analysis.