Števuška has two mommies: a stellar “Jenůfa” in Vienna

[Sadly, a Moravian Marriage is not quite a Boston Marriage: Angela Denoke (Kostelnička) and Dorothea Röschmann (Jenůfa) in Janaček’s “Jenůfa” Wien/Staatsoper 2016. – Photo Credit: Michael Pöhn for the Wiener Staatsoper.]

And then there are nights like this one.

As disechanted and plain grumpy as I walked out of the “Tito” on Thursday, as shaken and elated I walked out of last night’s “Jenůfa”, somewhere between “Was this the same orchestra I heard treat Mozart like an udder a few days ago?!” and “Ah, so THAT is what you were actually practicing last week!”

All queer quips and headlines aside (though, yes, that’s what we’re here for), this evening was a marvel to behold, with two phenomenal female leads. And there was one moment in the Second Act, two quiet voices around the baby basket, negotiating love, that was so universal that my train of thought was “Now kiss. And raise the baby together. (Also, no one dies, no one goes to prison, and no one marries one tenor or the other).”

First things first, the most sensational part of this evening – and in an evening counting with Angela Denoke and Dorothea Röschmann and a “color me pleasantly surprised” Christian Franz that is saying something – were the Wiener Philharmoniker under Ingo Metzmacher. He was always good, but when did he become this good?

The evening had a vertical clarity and organic drive like the proverbial Moravian river. Everything was precise, I could detect no lagging at all. If every string tremolo (and “Jenůfa” has lots of those) is coiled with awareness, you know you’re in for a treat. The xylophone stood out and slid back into the sound like those 3D-images from the 90s that you had to hold in front of your eyes and slowly pull away. It was magical. There was a rhythmic drive that did neither seem overtly put on, nor neglected during more lyrical moments. At the end of the First Act party, after Kostelnička has spoken her part, the song drifted back up like a yearning pulled to the surface and the house seemed to collectively fall under its spell. Likewise in the Second Act, when Kostelnička tells Jenůfa her child has died, it seemed to be the strings – never overpowering, never larmoyant – that held the breath of everyone present. Amazing. Also, the gentleness in the brass section especially in initial phrasings in the Third Act, and the cor anglais that was so un-Tristanesque, so little ostentative in its discreet sigh more that a cry, that it made you listen up all the more.

Now add to that the singers. Dear God, the singers. It was one of those fangirlier moments during applause where I thought “I cannot believe I am in the same room as Angela Denoke and Dorothea Röschmann, at the same time!”

The staging is David Poutney’s 2002 production with the oversized mill, which I still think works very well (it is in very good shape, too), safe for some episodes that are a little strongly on the folkloristic side (the Judge’s wife in the Third Act, the Return of the Recruits in the First Act). It is traditional while leaving the singers room to bring their own inflections, and, also in the organization of the stage, offers a clean space to think about structural oppression and individual desires. The production (after 14 years of very limited runs) has now finally been switched to Czech, something that before apparently did not happen with “Jenůfa” in Vienna. I cannot judge how idiomatic the Czech was, but it works so much better than chunky German with unmatching vowels.

Christian Franz (Laca) was until last night someone I had booked down for Siegfried without much fanfare, and he took the First Act to warm up. His sound is the kind of large that is hard to control, with the dramatic vibrato that often comes with the fach. Other than with “Siegfried”, he got to be lyrical and impassioned as Laca, especially in his Second Act plea, and he managed it beautifully. It’s still a hefty voice, but he makes a really good Laca (something I did not expect going in).

Röschmann and Denoke, while individually striking, worked particularly well as a contrasting frame of Jenůfa and Kostelnička respectively. Warmth and cool fire, effusiveness and clarity.

Dorothea Röschmann is, to me, a very good Jenůfa and builds the character well: She manages to sound youthful at first, evoking a lightness and hope that she later  effectively anchors through passionate grief, only to return to glimpses of playfulness, also in acting, in the last act. I know Röschmann keeps getting the usual flak for sharper metallic edges in her top register (I would say it more for the upper middle, but I also would say that it works just fine when it comes to expressiveness – whether it indicates that parts of her voice are losing in roundness or agility does not really matter that much to me in terms of this evening). The warmth to her lower middle is exceptional, and her voice does carry some weight for still being somewhere in the lyrical spectrum, without being a lyric who has settled down for good in Legato Country. Her very top is silverish, with a lyrical gleam, and while she can pack a punch, I could detect no deforming metallic ring to it.

At times I had the sensation with all singers that they had in some range occasional issues to cross the pit, but that may have been because I was basically sitting above the orchestra and didn’t get even sound distribution. Things will likely have been different at parterre level.

Back to Röschmann. Not all the notes underneath the very top are equally strong, or balanced, or controlled, but I care much more about the warmth, the humanity and the wealth she can portray with that very material (two phrases last night practically screamed Marschallin, so I cannot wait for early June). With Röschmann, there is always a flow. Her sound may not be even at times, but it never flickers. And even when there is not the characteristic weight – at times a roundness, at times a gravitas, at times a voluptuousness – the imprint of all that is still palpable behind it, like the warmth that lingers in the air after the fire has died down. Röschmann, to me, is always a consciousness, a possibility of warmth that never equals a languid quiet. She is not a dramatic voice per se, but she thinks dramatically with it, and I find that it works exceptionally well for Jenůfa.

When this production premiered in 2002, Angela Denoke sang Jenůfa. This now is her first (no, second -after Stuttgart?) Kostelnička and she is fantastic (of course. She is Angela Denoke, what else did you expect?).

Especially in contrast to Röschmann, the lyrical coolness of her voice – which is not really an absence of warmth, but rather a stance on warmth – draws focus (that, and my companion for the night said: “Have you ever seen a Kostelnička with such a waistline?” – I had not. And her frame plays very much into her role portrayal, simply because Denoke is a singer-actress who will use everything at her disposal to create a character, including her own build).

I am not sure whether it is the tall frame and the way she moves it, whether it is the cheekbones or the jawline, or the Hamburg education that seems to leave an characteristic imprint of a cool breeze no matter the color of tone, but she made me think of a soprano cousin of Daniela Sindram (who was likewise educated in Hamburg, although I don’t know if they shared teachers).
Kostelnička is a part often taken on by singers (often by mezzo-sopranos) who have reached a point in their careers where expressivness wins out over material. You can sing a great Kostelnička even if parts of your voice are already gone. Denoke, however, is not gone at all. Her voice is intact (if you wonder about just how intact it is, think of last year’s Rihm at Salzburg), so she has the possibility at her disposal to do a lyrical Kostelnička, and it is a fascinating portrayal. The cool, yearning quality of her voice that always seems to be searching for something, arching towards something in unafraid clarity, paints a woman who has not been loved very well, but who in turn loves very much.

This Kostelnička does not stomp like a bully into the First Act party, she is not someone hardened or numbed down by the things life has thrown at her. She gives the impression of someone who feels despite all that, but has stopped expecting to be dealt a kinder hand. This is where the waistline comes into play as a marker for someone so slender they look starved for affection, especially in comparison to the effortlessly full tone of Röschmann, which also nicely plays off her physique.

Denoke’s shoulders are hunched inward, coiled into herself, painting a woman who has given up hope of being loved. Denoke does not, as most mezzo singers in this role even well past their prime do, have the roaring lower notes of someone who has done a hundred Carmens and then some. She does not thunder. But, God, she actually *sings* this part. In full. I don’t think I have ever heard that before. Of course her lower middle register will only gain weight if she has a moment longer, or if she shapes the sound with more insistence, but at this level, that’s not criticizing. She’s a soprano, and by that I don’t mean Turandot, and that’s that. Her material is in remarkable shape, and there are very few sharpnesses throughout.

Denoke’s acting is, as per usual, gripping. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything of hers that would have been disengaged or anything other than committed. Just as an example – because otherwise, we could be here all day phrase by phrase – let me point out the use of her hands in this role, at three different moments.

At the beginning of the Second Act, the premise is set in one gesture. Seated at a table, Röschmann’s Jenůfa is turned towards her child in effortless love, running a hand along his basket or his face time and again. On the side of Kostelnička, there is just one moment, very early on, where her hand moves towards the basket, across the table, slowly, as if wanting to remain unseen, and then it seems to catch on itself and retreats: She cannot allow herself to love this child (but she does).

[as an aide: this is the moment that looked like “Baby Števa has to mommies” to a queer eye, because two women on equal footing, two woman’s voices, circling between confidence and longing around the themes of love and sacrifice, of having to give up love as well as loving regardless: that rings true to a collective memory]

The second instance happens after Števa rejects his son and leaves (I never fail to hate the tenor with a passion at this point): Kostelnička’s look wanders to the crib basket and, in one quick motion, she clamps her hand over her mouth in horror – the murder plot has just occurred to her and she is horrified. Again: this Kostelnička is not hardened enough to kill, she is not hardened at all, and it is painful to watch how she pushes herself into killing.

The third moment happens when she returns from the murder and consoles Jenůfa over the loss of the child: They are seated next to each other, not looking at each other, yet a stricken Jenůfa stretches out her hand for Kostelnička to take it. Kostelnička does – she has been reaching out, never quite daring to make contact, before this point – and then lets go and stares at her own hands, recoiling at the sight. And you can see written across her face the thought of “These hands just killed, how can they be capable of giving comfort? How could they ever be capable of tenderness again?” The moment is bone-chilling, in acting as in music, as a whisper seems to echo through the orchestra, whose alertness is perfectly matching Denoke’s take on this: alert and gentle, not broken and brash.

If I had to pick one moment from this night: it would be this, the tension in Denoke’s shoulders, the image of someone who knows they will never feel warm again and who does not permit themselves to grief: not the baby’s life, not their own. It is an incredibly stark contrast to Röschmann’s Jenůfa, who even in her despair and grief sounds of warmth here. For this Jenůfa has known love, she does love freely, and even in her grief, she keeps loving. This has not been taken from her. Röschmann’s hands, when she holds onto the empty basket, are sure, while next to her, Kostelnička’s cool, lyrical tone is, like her hands, always searching, stretching towards something she expects to be denied, and what she believes now should be denied to her.

I’ve never seen or heard a Kostelnička that much in love. Neither a Jenůfa of such confident warmth even when no warmth should be able to be found, and in this combination – with this Kostelnička – it was even more poignant.

In short: Last night was a night for the history books.

17 thoughts on “Števuška has two mommies: a stellar “Jenůfa” in Vienna”

  1. The only time I saw Jenufa life (quite a while ago) there was some mistake with the subtitles, making it hard to really get all parts of the story, and to be honest, after reading your review, I’m not sure if I really want to engage to this story. It sounds deeply disturbing, probably all the more when performed by such a great cast. I like Janacek’s music very much and was very impressed by his “Cunning little vixen” but then, that’s supposed to be his “lightest” opera. Maybe I just allow myself to stay in seria wonderland a little while longer? But anyway, thanks for the great review and this Jenufa will be on my list for the future (can someone please hack Wiener Staatsoper streaming and publish on YT?)!

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    1. I don’t know whether the evening was streamed? I will have to go investigate.

      “Jenufa” is a little hard to stomach (but the music is so beautiful!) – I was trying not to cry by the time she hands Jenufa the drink (and failed, of course). It is stressful, but I still find it easier to watch than any version of Medea. I cannot do that any longer.
      Regardless of that, Seria Wonderland is a place where I plan to stay indefinitely. MP is already posting from the Belgian capital talking about rehearsals, so we are definitely on for our scheduled late May seria séance. 😉

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      1. It will be life-streamed next sunday apparently (paid), but I will be in Tristan&Isolde then 🙂
        A propos Tristan, I found your related fanfic just in time for “preparation”, thanks, that was fun (but why do these knights stories always have to be so gruesome :-(?). I tend to forget Wagner’s storylines fairly quickly but maybe I manage to remember this time (although Tristan is very, very easy compared to the Ring).

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        1. oh, Tristan! Enjoy!
          (and since The Goblet was about retelling the core myth, I felt I was not at much at liberty to make it less “gruesome”. I just wanted the big-tragic-beautiful-passionate thing in queer. But at some point, I will return to writing happy endings again, too).

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      2. MP posting you said? … i go look!
        Yes, while talking about posting, perhaps you’ve already stopped by the La Monnaie de Munt fb site? more posting! (that’s where you got the impression about politics re. this staging? i see lots of flags, and an Aspasia as tall as Sifare..

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      3. ps- just looping back to type what i originally was here for: i really love reading this review! as Towanda said, it’s the kind of review that brings newbies in! the knowledge of the music, the deep details reflecting the characters’ mindset., the interplay with orchestra to express the mood.. (and i realized only in smaller houses you have the luxury to observe this too! the staatsoper is a bit big but depending on where one sits/stands one can really observe. extreme oblique angle above orchestra is always my fav spot, though not for Strauss!)

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        1. Thank you (if that’s what it takes to recruit, I’ll be here for the toaster ovens!)
          I was standing for the 2nd and 3rd act (3rd row behind me was, thankfully, empty – although I don’t understand how such a performance was not completely sold out), and tha was a good view of everything, and close enough. Otherwise, I am not above bringing binoculars. 😉

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  2. Brava on a beautiful and overarching analysis and deeply evocative description of all parts of an operatic performance. It was almost too rich to take in. You completely and skilfully evoked the disquieting sadness of these tragic women. While you really framed this opera as one I would want to see I don’t quite know if my heart could take it, particularly as in this remarkable performance. I have the feeling that I would have to watch it piecemeal were I to be not overwhelmed.
    Stripped of the veneer of one-dimensional ‘orientalism through a western lens’ Jenůfa seems as if she could be a less brittle and more mature distant cousin of Cio-Cio San. And I am left wondering why, as you obliquely suggested, J and K could not have left L out of the alphabet and raised the baby themselves. Closely re-examining the plot, it seems to me as if it could very well have been tweaked to make this work by taking Kostelnička to the very brink of her conflicted action and pulling her back. Oh well.

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    1. Thank you, inkbrain.
      And only in reading your thoughts, I realized that I did not mention once (it wasn’s an intentional decision) the fact that Kostelnička raised Jenůfa and is her step-mother. I find it interesting that the fact that they are not blood-related is an issue in the libretto. It makes the contrast of “raising one “illegitimate child” and refusing to raise and love the other even starker, but of course it also makes it less heteronormative, from a queer POv: Women-led households forming families, age gap not a hindrance… Another point is likely that Röschmann and Denoke cannot be apart more than a decade and a half in age. Röschmann never comes across as a girl, always as a woman, and Denoke is not playing a grandmotherly Kostelnička – also, she is very attractive.

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  3. I see there is only a six -year difference in age between Denoke and Röschmann, but yes, between their roles there is a larger age gap. Could there be something in such an age difference that subtly signals to our minds that a connection, even if it is present merely as a suggestion, is chosen and not automatic? That stepmother motif was also present in Mithridate wasn’t it? – Even though there was apparently no appreciable age difference there between Petibon and Papatanisiu. I can’t help reading into stories a striving for connection between women, even if it was not intended by the author. That’s just the ‘queer eye’ I suppose. There is a huge nostalgia in me for all the missed chances between women both in art and literature and and in the real-life past. and all the potential for joy that is thereby turned into tragedy. It makes me wish history and literature could be re-written inclusive of lesbian possibility, which is why I so often re-twist the plot and re-write these things in my head. So often love between women is expressed as a missed chance – as something that is not permitted to be noticed or acknowledged in its possibilities.
    And per your stated intent (if not promise!) I will look forward to some happy endings from you too! lesbian stories beg for a lieta fine – unless you feel you really must sacrifice it to make a more important statement!

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    1. only six years? I confess that I did not google their ages.
      Well, all the more suggestive for a non-motherly reading! Connection between women really are the core point.
      (and, yes, happy endings, too. I did write some already. I will write more.)

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  4. Even as I militate in favour of happy endings I must be very careful to let you know that I never wish to be the ‘reader over your shoulder’. Your writing is your own gift to wield as you please, and I am very respectful of that.

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    1. Thank you, much appreciated!
      (although I always go in with a finished storyboard, so I’m pretty set from the get-go)

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