Interview: Amanda Roocroft returns to English National Opera as Jenufa

'I guess you get to this age and became grateful for what you've already got.'

10 March 2009

Amanda Roocroft as Jenufa

It's a cheerful Amanda Roocroft who answers the phone when I call her a few days before the opening night of English National Opera's revival of Jenufa. Though she's been driving her children to various Sunday activities, the English soprano still jokes about her lively menagerie – 'a dog, a cat and goldfish' – and answers all my questions about Janacek's intense opera with good humour and enthusiasm.

Although it's not an easy sell to a general audience, Roocroft emphasises the power of Jenufa: 'It's a play with music; it's real music theatre.'

She relates how some friends of hers became addicted with the genre when they saw Jenufa in October 2006, when David Alden's ENO production was first shown. 'When I moved into this area and eventually everyone found out I was a singer, some of the members of my church came to see it. For many of them it was the first time they'd been to the opera, so it was a real baptism of fire. But they were absolutely gripped, and now they come all the time. The Merry Widow didn't have quite the same effect – they wanted more story, more drama – but Jenufa really hooked them.

'And the music is sensational. You don't come out singing it, it's true, but it's tied together with the drama completely.'

Of the character of Jenufa, Roocroft says 'She's a strong, lovely girl to begin with. We find out she's strong because of what she has to endure. She's under pressure from her stepmother to conform, but Jenufa wants to be a fun-loving girl. She's had to contend with a lot, and has to deal with the disappointment of her relationship with Laca, followed by the news that she's pregnant, then he cuts her face.

'And she's a feisty girl. She's known Laca for a long time, and they've never grown up. She teases him – it's a very childish affair that they've had. His temper gets the better of him. The fact that she can forgive her mother at the end is quite extraordinary. I love her – she's one of my favourite characters.'

I ask whether Roocroft finds it easy to relate to Jenufa's admittedly extreme experiences - 'Well we don't have frozen babies in Coppull!' she admits, referring to the Lancashire village where she was brought up. 'But we've all been disappointed in love. I can feel pressure sometimes – not from my parents, but from my career. High achievers put pressure on themselves to maintain that standard, so I understand how she feels.

'Also, I have three children and the idea of losing one of them is something I only want to visit in an opera.

'And going back to the frozen baby thing: even now, we hear of babies being left in rubbish bins in railway stations. It's not that far from reality.'

Roocroft won an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera for her previous appearance as Jenufa at ENO. It's something about which she's modest to the point of shyness, but she admits that the role is a good choice for her. 'I have enjoyed singing this part for a long time, yes. And I enjoy the challenge of bringing her to life. I was very lucky to be asked to take part in this production, and vocally I feel happy singing it. There are some parts you can sing the minute you wake up in the morning and others you have to work at all day. It's not necessarily “easy”, but Jenufa is a good fit for my voice.'

Roocroft excepted, this revival features a largely different cast from the original run at the Coliseum. 'It's not made a huge difference,' she assures me, 'but it has made some difference. The thing is, we have different kinds of personalities working with us this time, and they look at the piece from their own life experiences. That's what's wonderful about working with David [Alden, the director]: he uses our experiences to bring it to life, rather than imposing his views on us. As I've said before, he directs, he doesn't dictate.

Amanda Roocroft 'The cast is lovely – Michaela [Martens, who plays Jenufa's mother, Kostelnička] is particularly wonderful. I'm so excited for her: it's a marathon of a part, but she's paced it so well.'

David Alden's production updates the action, but Roocroft says that 'It doesn't disturb me in the slightest, and it seems to fit perfectly. Even ten or twenty years ago, we still heard of ladies who became pregnant being forced to hide away or have abortions, or having their children dragged from them, so it's still a relevant story. I think David's point was to make it less folky and sentimental; we want to get to the core of the story.'

It seems that Alden won't be drawn on his vision of ENO's new Peter Grimes, set to open in May, in which Roocroft will again team up with him to play Ellen Orford. 'He won't talk about it until we've opened Jenufa! All I know is that my son – who's in the chorus – has to have his hair cut very short. I was asked if he'd mind, and of course he doesn't, but I mind! I don't want my beautiful son to have short hair!'

Roocroft says of Ellen Orford that 'Again, she's very strong, and she's an outsider. She doesn't follow the norm and sees great qualities in Peter. She notices his shyness and understands his inability to communicate. She deals with the community and I don't believe she comes from the Borough. I think she's come from the outside and is kept there. As a schoolmistress, a lone unmarried female who earns her own living, she's strange to them anyway, so she's had to endure an awful lot and committed so much of her life to Peter. So, the typical romantic woman! She thinks that with her love she can make him strong, but it's the old case of the leopard who can't change his spots.'

The soprano has plans to return to ENO in the future, too. 'They've asked me to do The Makropoulos Case. I did think twice about it, but I'm quite looking forward to it now. I've only seen it done by ladies of a certain age; she has age and experience, but there's no reason why I can't do it. Vocally, too, I think it's good for me, so it should be great.'

In the autumn, Roocroft will return to the role of Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly at WNO. 'I admire it for the same reasons,' she says. 'Great music and great drama. She's a very three-dimensional character with plenty of strength. She goes against her family in the name of love, so she cannot afford to believe that he won't come back. When she realises there is no future, so brings her life to an end. She's too proud. There's lots of potential in the way that you can play that - for instance, in the scene with Sharpless at the beginning of Act 2, there are huge ups and downs of emotion.'

Amanda Roocroft The highlight of Welsh National Opera's 09-10 season is a new production of Wagner's Die Meistersinger, in which Bryn Terfel will sing his first Hans Sachs. Roocroft returns to the role of Eva, which she sang at Covent Garden in 2002. 'She's not as strong a character as the other three. But I must say, I want to hit her sometimes! She's very naughty and spoilt. I find her terribly manipulative: she gets what she wants in the end, and in a way I don't think she ever doubted that she would. She has a bit more about her than just being good and sweet. I don't think that's what life's really like!'

She mentions a couple of new roles that are coming up. 'I'm doing the Governess in The Turn of the Screw in February 2010. It's my first staged opera appearance in ten years, and it's another great role for me. Capriccio with Opera North is definitely happening, and that's the other big one in the next couple of years. I'd love to do Ilia in Idomeneo: I was due to do it at WNO when I was first at Glyndebourne, but I got glandular fever and had to cancel. I love her music and it would be a lovely challenge. People keep telling me I should do the Marschallin, but I'm not so sure.'

I ask her about the possibility of future additions to her discography. 'Well, there's no money and people aren't making things. I've just finished the second disc of a complete Elgar songs set with a baritone. I've also been chatting to the people at Onyx, who recorded the recital disc I made with Malcolm Martineau, about doing an English song disc – it's just a case of getting together and deciding what we're going to do and when we're going to do it.'

Any ambitions? 'Marry David Tennant! He doesn't know it yet, but he's all mine,' she jokes. 'Really, my only ambition is to stay as happy as I am now.

'I'm forever telling my children to reach for the stars because you might catch the moon. But I guess you get to this age and became grateful for what you've already got.'

By Dominic McHugh

Jenufa opens at English National Opera on 12 March 2009.

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Amanda RoocroftRelated articles:

Interview: Amanda Roocroft on The Merry Widow, April 2008
CD Review: Amanda Roocroft's None But the Lonely Heart CD
Concert Review: Amanda Roocroft in Janacek's Osud at the Proms
Opera Review: Amanda Roocroft as Desdemona in Otello in 2008

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