tue 16/07/2024

Jenůfa, English National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Jenůfa, English National Opera

Jenůfa, English National Opera

Janáček's optimistic tragedy at its most powerful in electrifying revival

'The possibility of a better future': Jenůfa (Laura Wilde) and Laca (Peter Hoare)All images by Donald Cooper

ENO's new artistic director Daniel Kramer must regret having gone on BBC Radio 4's Start the Week to talk about suspending Janáček "and other obscures" from the company's repertoire for several seasons to come. Good God, if Jenůfa, Janáček's first searing masterpiece, can't move an ENO novice to tears then something's wrong.

I can only repeat what I wrote about the recent concert performance, that I'd always recommend it as the first port of call for anyone who loves theatre and is wary of opera.

Fortunately everything is right in this revival of David Alden's industrialised Czech setting, removing the action from 19th-century Moravian village to 1950s factory with flashing lights rather than revolving mill wheel to reflect the fateful xylophone that punctuates the First Act. It takes us through pain and suffering to the possibiity of a better future. That was a trajectory for Referendum Night that could only send the Remainers - surely the majority in the Coliseum - out with more hope than they had when they came in. Something of that still has to exist at the bottom of Pandora's opened box.

Colours are breathtaking in a hard-to-balance scoreThat it was the fourth unqualified triumph for Mark Wigglesworth this season suggests that ENO should, under happier circumstances, have been thinking of getting him and Alden to complete a Janáček cycle, not dropping the composer, however temporarily, from the rep. Conductor and director worked together back in 2010 on a Katya Kabanova so stunning in its impact that I went twice. I'd do the same for this.

The ever more amazing players of the ENO Orchestra under Wigglesworth capture the best of all possible worlds. There's the sheer dewy beauty that brings them close to the rather soft-grained Czech Philharmonic sound in April's concert Jenůfa; Wigglesworth makes infinite distinction between the quieter dynamics, summed up by his subtly escalating emphasis on the two heart-surging violin phrases launching the final scene. But there's also the sheer,well-earthed power missing from that earlier performance, with curtains to all three acts as electrically charged as Mackerras used to make them.

Michael Martens and Nicky Spence in Jenufa

Colours are breathtaking in a hard-to-balance score; the harp figures as much here as its Czech counterpart did on the Festival Hall concert platform, leader Janice Graham's violin solos double the impact of Jenůfa's prayer for her absent child and even the bassoons forge subtle links between Graeme Danby's lecherous Foreman, usually a sympathetic character, and Nicky Spence's Števa as drunken Lothario.

All this would be some compensation, but not enough, if the relationship between the two central female characters weren't as powerful as it is. The dynamic needs to shift. Jenůfa starts out as a sweet and sensible village girl in trouble whose weakness is her love for the feckless Števa. Then she becomes more like her stepmother the Kostelnička or village sacristan, whose hard earlier life with a drunken, abusive husband has contributed to her harsh decree that these ill-suited young people shouldn't get married for a year. And here the balance certainly alters, inexorably, devastatingly.

Michaela Martens, a mezzo rather than the more usual soprano, does indeed seem a formidable Kostelnička in Act One, but she has such a range of vocal shadings at her disposal that we're shuttlecocked back and forth between emotions like her frightening rages against the father of Jenůfa's child who won't take responsibility and her softening when she responds to Števa's weakness in the face of his fear (Martens and Spence pictured above) and embraces him.

At this point it's Jenůfa who is the more severe and damaged soul, her heaviness lightened only by love for the week-old baby. Young Laura Wilde makes a heartrending transition from a spirited, pretty girl in Marian blue to drugged, pale and facially disfigured young mother (pictured below) and on, in Act Three, to a wise woman who's learnt too much too soon about the disappointments and horrors of life. Throughout, her delivery and body language are truthful, her upper register flawlessly radiant. The battle of top sopranoid top notes between the two women in the claustrophobic and decisive Second Act is spine-tingling, as it must be. Very well, so it could have been cast with British singers - Elizabeth Llewellyn and Susan Bullock are two that spring immediately to mind - but we can have nothing but gratitude for the commitment of these two Americans.

Laura Wilde as Jenufa

All this is enriched still further by Peter Hoare, as the passionate factory hand Laca whose jealousy of Jenůfa's love for Števa drives the first act to a charged denouement. Hoare leaves us in no doubt of the febrile, marginalised would-be lover's generous soul from the start, and the drama reaches sob-inducing heights when he barges in on Jenůfa's grief for the child she believes died a natural death. That unbearable pull in the lower half of the orchestra, the confrontation of Laca's ardour with Jenůfa's declaration that she has no love left to give, all this is searing music-drama of the highest order. It's here that an English translation - a presumably modified treatment of the old one by Otakar Kraus and Edward Downes which respects the crucial repetitions of certain lines as later versions have not - makes all the clearer the remarkable directness of Jenůfa's language. Wigglesworth's trust in the power of dramatic silences provides a further turn of the screw.

Alden, whose first act focuses on more negative emotions than are perhaps there in the music and the original setting, keeps the truth of the relationships in Act Two strong and simple, enhanced by the large space of Charles Edwards' urban Eastern European apartment with its dirty, broken windows behind the cardboard covering the Kostelnička has applied to keep her stepdaughter's shame from the world and the powerful changes of Adam Silverman's lighting. He even finds unusual humour in the Act Three wedding preparations, the nuptial folk chorus delightfully done by girls in traditional costume, staying true to the customs persisting behind the Iron Curtain (shades of the late, great Nikolaus Lehnhoff's half-folksy, half 20th-century-realistic Glyndebourne Bartered Bride; pictured below).

Scene from Act Three of ENO Jenufa

That only makes the discovery of the baby's corpse beneath the ice and its consequences all the more shattering. Like Lehnhoff in his classic Jenůfa, one of the all-time great productions, Alden makes the violence of the community's reaction terrifyingly palpable, and the ENO Chorus rise to the challenge with focused intensity. Then it's left to Martens, Hoare and Wilde to carry blazing torches to that ever-surprising ending. We can believe that, as happens in the daring original playwright Gabriela Preissová's novelistic sequel to her remarkable play, the Kostelnička could be rehabilitated after her prison sentence in the now-happy family of Jenůfa and Laca. That's an unusual possibility in an Alden production, but here, at least, he knows how to serve the source's greatness of heart.

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