San Francisco Opera has recruited two excellent sopranos for the pivotal roles in its moving production of Janáček’s first operatic success, “Jenůfa.”
Its original Czech name, “Jeji Pastorkyna,” means “Her Stepdaughter,” and in the opera’s first presentation of Olivier Tambosi’s symbolically rich production, Malin Byström and Karita Mattila are ideal as the title character and her beloved, though domineering, stepmother.
In Tuesday’s opening at the War Memorial, Swedish soprano Byström (making her SFO debut) was a vocally radiant and dramatically appealing Jenůfa, the simple 19th-century Moravian village girl with a youthful exuberance but soap opera-like personal life. Flitting about an ominously placed boulder on the stage — framed by tall, rustic wooden walls, a wheat field and blue sky — Jenůfa makes a passionate, convincing case that she loves her cousin Števa Buryja. In that Act l scene and throughout the opera, Byström delivered lithe, honeyed phrases and pleasant top notes.
Exceptional Finnish soprano Mattila, making her stage role debut as Jenůfa’s stepmother Kostelnička Buryjovka (she has sung the role in concerts), offered a commanding, extraordinary account of a woman who wants what she thinks is best for her daughter, even if that means drowning Jenůfa and Steva’s out-of-wedlock newborn child in an icy river.
Mattila’s ample, powerful voice smoldered in its lower range and soared in its upper range, as she smoothly dispatched all her top notes. She was particularly effective during her Act 2 scene of angst when she determines she must kill the baby, but yells in anguish over the decision. The centrally located boulder, now much larger, seemingly represents as much a weight upon Kostelnička’s conscience as a symbol of the village’s conservative mores.
Tenor Scott Quinn brought a sturdy voice and self-confidence to Steva, who is his grandmother’s favorite grandson and, through his birthright, will inherit the town mill.
But his alcoholic excesses in public, cavalier attitude about Jenůfa and their baby, and decision to marry the mayor’s daughter instead of Jenůfa repel Kostelnička, who wants Jenůfa to marry Steva’s half-brother Laca Klemeň instead, even though the latter, torn between love and jealousy for Jenůfa, slashes her cheek with a knife during an argument.
As Laca, tenor William Burden cut a sympathetic figure as the less-favored son who must work at the family mill to earn his keep, resentful his half-brother possesses the economic status and love of a woman that he covets; and, sincerely regretful after he harms her. Burden’s sweet, ardent voice steadily made its mark, ultimately winning over Jenůfa in their touching Act 3 duet.
In the supporting roles, mezzo-soprano Jill Grove as Grandmother Buryjovka, soprano Sarah Tucker as the shepherd boy Jano, and current Adler Fellows bass-baritone Matthew Stump as the foreman at the mill, bass Anthony Reed as the mayor, soprano Zanda Švēde as the mayor’s wife, soprano Julie Adams as their daughter Karolka, and soprano Toni Marie Palmertree as Barena all made favorable impressions.
Ian Robertson’s chorus contributed nicely to the bucolic setting, while Czech conductor Jiri Belohlavek, who also led SFO’s 2010 production of Janáček’s “The Makropulos Case,” elicited both expressiveness and folkloric touches from the orchestra.
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 2 p.m. June 19, 7:30 p.m. June 22, June 25, June 28 and July 1
Tickets: $26 to $395
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com