Paolo Fantin and Damiano Michieletto stage their portrayal of Leoš Janáček’s ‘Jenůfa’, with ice as the dominant element of the piece, used as a visual representation of the characters’ inner life, grappling with the pressures of social rigidity and heartless morality. “We translated the idea of coldness, of elemental ice, crucial to the story – into a symbolic and psychological dimension,” says Fantin. “This coldness was rendered into a spatial concept”.
The set itself is an ice cube and the actors perform within it. “To create the ice cube, I used alveolar polycarbonate panels on the back of the stage, and at the front, two curtains were placed to finish forming the sides of the cube. The panels reflect light in a particular way, giving the impression of a white, cold and clinical atmosphere”.
Throughout the first act, like a Greek choir, representing the gaze of the townspeople – extras stare upwards, as if witnessing the blasting of a meteorite, transmitting a feeling of finality.
The thick piece of ice that we see at the very beginning of the play represents Jenůfa’s baby. Števa repeatedly stabs the ice with a knife, metaphorically symbolizing his unwanted fatherhood, as Jenůfa feels the deep wounds manifest in her womb.
An iceberg starts descending relentlessly over Kostelnička, the remnants of her ice-cold past coming back to haunt her, inducing her to kill the baby, leaving him in the ice. Only Kostelnička can perceive it, it is her obsession alone. The same ice that will eventually melt, revealing the corpse and her guilt.
“I call it a mental iceberg”, says Fantin – following the Freudian idea of the human mind as an iceberg, divided into three parts. The peak, that emerges from the water, we cannot see because we are under it, represents the conscious level of our mind. The medium part, that we start to see in the scene, represents memories and everything we remain conscious of. The most profound level is in the water, which stands equally with the actors. . This represents the subconscious, where fears, violence, wild instincts, irrationality, and sometimes immorality, are located” says Fantin.
This is Kostelnička’s mental iceberg, revealing the most profound level of her subconscious. She tries to hold onto it, but eventually, to protect Jenůfa’s social reputation, irrationality and violence prevail.
The iceberg starts melting as the truth starts to unravel. On Jenůfa’s wedding day, Kostelnička seems different, everyone says: “She’s strange, she’s not who she used to be”. A hole appears in the floor, a wide opening of cracked ice. Part of her obsession, she stares at it. Some gaps in the iceberg let water drop into the crack”, explains Fantin. When the corpse is found and Kostelnička pleads guilty, the black hole becomes visible to all. “I thought of this breaking point as ice cracking, accompanied by a loud noise to signify it”, says Fantin. As Kostelnička is socially condemned, she enters the hole abandoning the idea that there is any way out for her. She will stay in this prison forever.
The final act concludes with sunlight illuminating the cold and barren scene, symbolizing a thaw and a new dawn. The warmth of the light steers Jenůfa and Laca towards a path of hopeful uncertainty.
Jenůfa is produced by Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin and was streamed live on 3sat.de last February.