According to various reviewers, David Alden’s 2006 production of Janáček’s Jenůfa – now successfully revived for the first but hopefully not for the last time - is supposed to be updated from 19th century Moravia to the communist era of a Central European country.
Yet the beauty of Alden’s production is that it is as timeless and placeless as love, passion, selfishness, self-sacrifice and forgiveness are. Of course, the dreadful shame of an illegitimate child no longer applies in Western Europe but it was of huge concern not too long ago.
Alden’s anti-musical contributions are minor blemishes but perhaps significant enough to mention them. When, at the beginning of the opera, Laca carves some wood in time with the music and then a little later the foreman sharpens his knife again in time, they create sounds as if an extra instrument had been added to Janaček’s score. And there is the motorcycle on which Steva arrives and leaves: I can’t help wondering whether Janaček would have approved or disapproved the sounds of a motorcycle added to his music.
Amanda Roocroft returns to her award-winning portrayal of Jenůfa. She knows this part inside out, indeed by now she does not perform but seemingly lives the part on stage. Roocroft looks great, sounds great and is completely convincing as the fun-loving girl who becomes pregnant with a selfish man and then – through the birth and death of her child – grows into a wise, forgiving person.
Perhaps the title of this opera should be Kostelnička. Anxious to protect her stepdaughter Jenůfa, Kostelnička first tries to persuade Števa to take responsibility for the life he had created with Jenůfa and then takes the dreadful decision to murder their baby as the only way out. Kostelnička’s journey from an upright citizen to a murderess is harrowing. Michaela Martens gave a virtuoso and heart-breaking portrayal, physically as well as vocally.
Tom Randle as Števa is obnoxious, which is what he is meant to be. First he is a big-headed drunk, then a selfish coward, but finally he too is a victim of the tragedy he brought about. Randle is impressively athletic – it can’t be easy to dance with such high jumps, let alone when singing Janaček’s vocal lines at the same time – and he sings effortlessly.
Robert Brubaker was convincing as the long suffering Laca, and all the other soloists – including Susan Gorton (Grandmother Buryja) and Mairéd Buicke (Karolka) – were excellent.
It seemed a shame that the chorus was not used on stage more. As in so many operatic productions, often they just stood there, yet there were occasions – for instance, in the choral number “Far away” – when the music could accommodate movement on stage.
The violin solos in the Jenůfa score are of importance, especially an extended solo in the second act. ENO orchestra leader Janice Graham played superbly, as she – as per my experience – always does. Whether it is Händel (Agrippina), Puccini (Madam Butterfly) or Janaček (Jenůfa), Graham’s solos are always self-assured and stylish, and it is likely that Graham is the best orchestra leader ENO has ever had.
I liked the choice of tempi which conductor Eivind Gullberg Jensen made, but it was a shame that subsequent but contrasting sections of the score tended to blend into each other, thus negating some of the excitement and beauty of the score.
The two main protagonists in the opera – Jenůfa and Kostelnička – are performed by two great singers. Don’t miss them!
By Agnes Kory
Photos: Robert Workman/ENO
Interview: Amanda Roocroft on Jenufa, March 2009
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
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