Keep emotions in Czech

The dramatic opera ‘Jenufa’ by Leos Janacek has an international cast of vocalists and a wide range of sentiments.

Jenufa Czech opera 390 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jenufa Czech opera 390
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Opera is not generally the mode of entertainment you should be going for if you’re looking for a bit of lighthearted distraction from the daily grind, even though the comic variety of the art form did very well for itself across Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Judging by the dramatic storyline, Jenufa by Czech composer Leos Janacek is certainly not a work that you can just take or leave.
Jenufa will be performed at the Tel Aviv Opera House nine times between February 13 and 25, with an international cast of vocalists under director Nikolaus Lehnhoff, with Lebanese-born American conductor George Pehlivanian on the podium.
The opera tells a grim story of death, betrayal and unrequited love, but it all works out in the end.
It is an opera over which Pehlivanian has presided several times, but which he says can pose a challenge for even the most seasoned performer. “For starters, it’s in Czech, which is not an easy language – like, say, Italian or German – to sing in. It is very complicated, and it’s a challenge for everybody,” he notes, adding that the onstage drama also requires nerves of steel. “It is a very emotional story, which is difficult to swallow. It is not too often that a baby gets killed in an opera.”
The plot of Jenufa revolves around a tangled set of village relationships. Before the opera begins, mill owner Grandmother Buryja’s two sons have married twice, fathered children and died.
Their wives have also died, except for Kostelnicka, the younger son’s second wife and Jenufa’s stepmother. Custom dictates that only Steva, the elder son’s child by his first marriage, will inherit the mill, leaving his half-brother Laca and cousin Jenufa to fend for themselves. To complicate matters further, Jenufa is secretly in love with Steva and is pregnant with his child.
Not only was Jenufa written in, for the art form, a somewhat leftfield language, but it was also one of the first operas to be written in prose which, presumably, had some effect on the rhythmic structure of the music.
“Janacek set the phrases melodically a lot of times,” explains the conductor. “So he’ll take a couple of bars and then repeat them. It’s his signature in a way, where he can repeat the same line twice or sometimes three times. You don’t usually have that in an opera. You usually tell the story and move on, especially an Italian or German story. That’s very special, and a new way of looking at the text. This is Janacek’s way, let’s say, of stressing the text.”
Jenufa is full of contrasts and is also something of a roller coaster ride as the story unfolds and the emotions careen across the sensibility scale. There is a bout of rowdiness in the first act as a bunch of soldiers hit the bottle and indulge in some raucous activities, but the second act involves some heart-rending tragedy.
“The soldiers are having a good time to begin with,” says Pehlivanian, “and a big balagan before the fun stops. There is a big contrast there. The second act is very intimate, and then the choir enters in the third act, which is much bigger.”
The members of the opera cast include Dutch-born Barbara Haveman, Latvian-born Israeli Ira Bertman, Armenian-born German resident Karine Babajanian – all of whom will play the title role – American tenor Hugh Smith and Finnish tenor Jorma Silvasti.
“It’s great to have so many different personalities and from so many places,” notes Pehlivanian.
“They have also all done this opera a few times, so they also bring that very valuable experience to this project.”
Pehlivanian, who is 47, also brings valuable experience to this job, including his previous role as a violinist.
“Playing the violin informs the way I conduct. I was a concert master at the age of 11,” he says proudly, “and I was concert master for Zubin’s [Mehta] father, Mehli, for five years in LA and I learned a lot from him.”
Pehlivanian says that having paid his dues as an instrumentalist enhances his rapport with the players under his direction. “Being a leader in an orchestra helps me understand the psychology of the orchestra life, so I know how musicians think and what they like and don’t like.”
In fact, Pehlivanian gained some invaluable insight into the lot of the classical musician from a very early age. “My mother was a great opera singer, so I grew up in a vocal family and grew up traveling with my mom all over the world.
So that very much helped train my ears to singing. For me, hearing an opera singer is always a very emotional experience for me because I always see my mother in front of me.”
The emotions in Jenufa run their course and, despite the turmoil and tragedy, the audience should go home feeling uplifted. “There is a positive message at the end, of forgiveness,” notes Pehlivanian.
“After all is said and done and the negative things in the opera, there is a sunny ending. That is quite rare in opera.”
Jenufa will be performed at the Tel Aviv Opera House between February 13 and 25. For more information and tickets: