Jenufa, Metropolitan Opera, New York

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The new regime at the mighty Met seems to have decided that opera needs hard-sell promotion to attract Everyman – or even any man. The frequent broadcasts invariably surround performances with dumbed-down self-congratulatory chatter, and official pronouncements gush overstated platitudes.

Take the case of Janácek’s Moravian masterpiece, Jenufa, which returned to the repertory on Monday. The Hollywoodish puff-machine described the vehicle as “a lyrical and sharp-edged drama”. In fact it is more than that. Karita Mattila, the “diva” who undertook the “tour de force” title-role, was labelled “electrifying” and “glorious”. Anja Silja, the veteran cast as her stepmother, the Kostelnicka, had to be content with an all-purpose adjective, “remarkable”.

All the harking and barking might have been justified if it had sold a lot of tickets. Unfortunately, such was not the case here. The house, capacity 4,000, yawned with empty seats.

The absentees missed a gripping performance. One could argue about the suitability of Frank Philipp Schlössmann’s silly-mod sets, which vacillate between neat stylisation and clumsy abstraction. Oh, those rocks. One could regret that Jirí Belohlávek, the well-versed conductor, paid less attention to vital dramatic punctuation than to lush sonorities and melodic flow. Still, one had to admire Olivier Tambosi’s taut stage-direction and, above all, the carefully integrated, often inspired ensemble.

As the troubled heroine, the “great” Mattila dominated every scene, even in repose. Projecting pathos physically and vocally without resorting to expressive cliché, she exuded vulnerability as well as muted passion. At the same time, she floated tones of endless, radiant purity. Silja’s tough soprano has lost lustre over the decades, especially at the lower depths. Still, this singing-actress remains a magnetic presence on the stage, and she deserves special credit for avoiding grotesquerie as the stern matriarch driven to infanticide. The tenors on duty, Jorma Silvasti as sensitive Laca and Raymond Very as insensitive Steva, held their own honourably.

Hype notwithstanding, this was a good night at the opera. So much for understatement. ★★★★☆

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