From the moment that the xylophone played out the opening rhythm with the double basses, and was joined by the other strings and wind before a violin solo rang out, everyone knew that the Czech Philharmonic, under the baton of Jiří Bělohlávek, had the measure of this engimatic score. And so the affinity between composer and players was to continue throughout the evening as the orchestra constantly brought clarity, balance and texture to the sound without ever once indulging in histrionics.
While, however, the overall standard of singing was just as high, a few too many issues ensured that this performance of Janáček’s Jenůfa came across ‘merely’ as very good rather than exceptional. Plenty of concert performances of operas have revealed greater ‘stagecraft’ than was demonstrated here, as several soloists stood rigidly behind their music stands, and even the moment when Laca cut Jenůfa’s cheek saw the two characters stand on opposite sides of the conductor’s podium.
Even the greatest voices in the world can be seen to better effect when the music is known off by heart so that breaths and phrasing can be fully anticipated. It may be too much to expect principals for a concert performance to sing from memory, but in this instance several seemed to be particularly reliant on their scores. In absolute terms Karita Mattila playing Kostelnička for almost the first time (the title role is firmly under her belt) put in the evening’s strongest performance, but she constantly stared at the score, even though she alone held it so that her entire body could be expressive. As I heard Mattila singing so well, with her trademark richness that hands her soprano a depth of tone more usually reserved for mezzo-sopranos, I was left asking if her sound might have been even better again if she had known the part inside out. We may get the answer to that in June when she sings the role on stage in San Francisco, but here her Act II ‘soliloquy’, in which the character’s despair and anguish were rendered with exceptional poignancy, was especially well executed.
The best male performance came from Svatopluk Sem, an outstanding Czech baritone who deserves to be far better known in the UK. He allowed his rich and full sound to come to the fore in the role of Stárek, although again his phrasing might have been more masterly had he been less reliant on his music. Adriana Kohútková as Jenůfa seemed more in control of her part and revealed a soprano that combined beauty and a degree of lightness with strength, and her Act II ‘monologue’ with solo violin and harp was particularly affecting.
As Laca, Aleš Briscein’s tenor occasionally sounded a little nasal, but when it opened out it was extremely stirring. Jaroslav Březina was good as Števa if sometimes slightly lacklustre, while Yvona Škvárová as Stařenka Buryjovka contrasted moments that were rendered extremely tenderly with others that felt a little unfocused. Some of the smaller parts were delivered with a high degree of polish including Marta Reichelová’s Jano, Luděk Vele’s Rychtář and Jana Hrochová’s Rychtářka.
Any negatives that could be identified across the evening, however, were only apparent because they stood in direct contrast to the overall strength demonstrated by orchestra, soloists and chorus (the Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno) alike. It was certainly enough to leave everyone present looking forward to the performance of The Makropulos Affair at the BBC Proms on 19 August, which also features Jiří Bělohlávek (this time with the BBC Symphony Orchestra), Karita Mattila, Aleš Briscein, Svatopluk Sem, Yvona Škvárová and Jana Hrochová.
This performance of Jenůfa was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and will be available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days.