Aside from a couple of college-based productions of distant memory, Leos Janacek’s Jenufa has remained a history-book entry in the Los Angeles area, but little more. That, of course, makes it ideal fodder for the intrepid explorative force known as the Long Beach Opera. In two performances in mid-June and in typical Long Beach style, Janacek’s postromantic heartwarmer surged and glowed on the company’s small stage – the John and Karen Carpenter Center at Cal State Long Beach – reinforcing the reputation of Michael Milenski’s remarkable enterprise. By some distance the oldest active company in its area, Long Beach Opera now approaches its 25th year as the little company that could, and did, and does.
This year’s novelty – for a company that has after all brought forth an Elektra set on the Malibu shore and a Tales of Hoffmann among East-Village druggies – was to locate this Jenufa exactly as specified in the libretto (and clearly defined in the rich folk accents of Janacek’s music). With Darcy Scanlin’s remarkable set – two farm buildings lying on their sides, with smoke-belching chimneys facing outward – the audience was obliged, in Isabel Milenski’s resourceful staging, to consider the action from two perspectives simultaneously.
In between, the indoor-outdoor performing space was further framed by sporadic faces at the farmhouse windows; the result was a kind of constant visible nervousness that accorded nicely with the twitches, the percussive outbursts, in Janacek’s wonderful score. Stage director Isabel Milenski, by the way, is the daughter of founder and general director Michael; this was her second production for the company. Whispers of nepotism, a common cross-current in Southern California operatic circles, can this time be stilled by the high intelligence of her work.
Lisa Willson was the Jenufa, in a performance especially remarkable for her naturalness as a country girl in love but in trouble. Daniel Cafiero was the Steva, who had gotten her into the trouble; Roy Cornelius Smith was the loving Laca, who marries her anyway. All three impressive young singers were new to Long Beach; Milenski’s efficient spy system had spotted them all at the Sarasota Opera. Katherine Ciesinski sang the stepmother Kostelnicka, and Kathryn Day, the Grandmother Buryja; both are company veterans. All shared an approach rare in big-time opera but ingrained at Long Beach: a convincing sincerity that made it actually look as if they were listening and singing to one another, not just to the seats out front.
Out front also was the splendid pit orchestra – sometimes overpowering if truth be told, but remarkably well-balanced in the way Southern California freelancers uniquely seem to manage even on a shoestring rehearsal schedule. Andreas Mitisek conducted, his fifth time out with the company. Another acquisition from Milenski’s spy network, Mitisek leads his own Vienna Opera Theater along ideals similar to those at Long Beach.
Brian Gantner’s English translation was employed, eloquent insofar as it could be heard above the torrents from the pit. Supertitles are, to Michael Milenski, a dirty word. “Why should you glue your attention on every single word ticker-taping across above the stage,” he says, “when your real response should be what the music is doing with and to those words? That, after all, is what opera is about…or should be.” He may have a point, and the work of his own company bears him out.