Record Guide: Janáček’s Jenůfa

With Jenůfa the 50-year-old Leos Janáček finally found his own personal style. Jenůfa was composed during Janáček’s intensive study of Moravian folk music, but the folk-opera-like passages, the recruits’ and girls’ choruses are not quotations from folk tunes, but artful reworkings of folk material. Because Janáček’s musical style has virtually absorbed the melodic and harmonic characteristics of folk music, the impression of a folk background is nevertheless created.  The recordings Jenůfa are now quite numerous and it can be difficult to choose from them. All pre-1982 recordings are attributed to the first so-called “Prague version”, while most (but not all) subsequent recordings follow the “Brno version” edited by Charles Mackerras and John Tyrrell.

There are two older studio recordings on the Czech label Supraphon that are well worth a listen. One is from 1953 with the National Theatre ensemble conducted by Jaroslav Vogel and featuring Štěpánka Jelínková as Jenůfa, Marta Krásová as Kostelnička and the legendary Beno Blachut as Laca. The second is from the 1977 Brno Opera under František Jílek with Gabriela Beňačková as Jenůfa and Naděžda Kniplová as Kostelnička.

 

In addition to a number of older live recordings in German, such as the older ones with Anny Schlemm in Frankfurt (under Matačić) from 1961 and Hildegard Hillebrecht in Munich (under Kubelik)  from 1968 as Jenůfa, there is also a recording on BIS of the Prague version (although the Brno version was in use at the time) from an intense concertante performance at Carnegie Hall (under Eve Queler) in 1988 with Beňačková in the title role and Leonie Rysanek as Kostelnička. There is also a 1980 recording with Elisabeth Söderström from San Francisco (Albert Rosen) on the label Gala, a live recording which is, unsurprisingly, of poor sound quality.

 

Bernard Haitink’s 2001 live recording from Covent Garden on Erato has a varying artistic quality, however, with a superb Karita Mattila in the title role.

With his recordings for Decca, Sir Charles Mackerras’ name is almost synonymous with Czech music, and his version of Jenůfa with Elisabeth Söderström has a place of its own in recording history. Mackerras’ later recording of the Welsh National Opera version for Chandos in 2003, with Janice Watson as Jenůfa and Rosalind Plowright as Kostelnička, is also artistically impeccable.

 

Apart from Mackerras’ Decca recording, arguably the best recording of Jenůfa is the 1969 EMI/Warner recording (in association with Supraphon) with the Prague National Theatre Soloists conducted by Bohumil Gregor, with Libuše Domanínská in the title role. Domaninská has a more girlish soprano than the vocally broader Beňačková, but both are excellent interpreters of Jenůfa. However, the highlight of the EMI/Warner recording, apart from the polished orchestral playing under Bohumil Gregor, is Naděžda Kniplová’s incomparable portrait of Kostelnička. The singer even surpasses herself on the later Supraphon recording from 1977. Her imposing appearance and singing technique, with its powerful chest tone, high register and crisp, sharp phrasing, are unique.

Oehms Classics’ 2017 recording from a performance of Jenůfa in Graz in May 2014 stands up remarkably well to the competition. The vocal ensemble is international, the orchestral playing under conductor Dirk Kaftan is well-differentiated and engaging, and the sound reproduction is brilliant, to say the least. Jenůfa is sung by Israeli soprano Gal James and her lyrically warm soprano is sometimes reminiscent of Elisabeth Söderström. As Kostelnička, German mezzo Iris Vermillion gives a highly theatrical performance, although her voice wobbles a little, but no more than many others of her age (50+) in this difficult role.

Later this year, a live recording of Jenůfa from the Royal Opera in Stockholm in 1976 will be released on the Swedish label Sterling. It is from a live performance in Swedish with Laila Andersson-Palme (who alternated with Elisabeth Söderström) in the title role and Kerstin Meyer as Kostelnička.

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