Continuing its tradition of exploring an eclectic repertoire, the second production of Opera Holland Park's 2007 season takes them into Czech territory with Janá?ek's Jen?fa.
Once the sun had gone down on opening night, the performance overcame a slightly blurred first act and gave us scintillating intensity after the interval.
Paradoxically, Janá?ek's approach to opera is both exciting and limited. Jen?fa moves at high speed and the word-setting is so lucid that the work is never less than engaging, especially in a musically committed performance such as this. The passion of the piece owes much to its Tchaikovskian antecedents; in both the peasant dances and the psychological and emotional turbulence of the characters, Eugene Onegin frequently comes to mind.
Yet unlike Tchaikovsky, Janá?ek does not always control the architectural signposts of his opera with total command. Obviously, one would not expect so classical a work as Onegin from Janá?ek, but both vocally and orchestrally, musical tautness and restraint are lacking. A Janá?ek opera is an extraordinary experience - oddly cathartic, in fact - but it is more moving in the whole than memorable for specifics. The lack of refinement in the orchestration is sometimes lamentable, for example in the composer's jarring combinations of tuned percussion and voice (which really don't go together). Yet the overall effect is so moving that is impossible not to feel deeply touched. And even if the catharsis is attained more by lying on burning coals than relaxing in healing spa waters, the suffering is worth the life-changing experience.
With no intention to resort to hyperbole, I can honestly say that Anne Sophie Duprels and Anne Mason gave the two most compelling performances I have ever seen at Holland Park. One might not think of OHP as the obvious place to head for to hear Janá?ek, but London's very own operatic arcadia has served up a gourmet treat in these two performers.
Duprels, of course, is familiar from her excellent assumptions of Verdi's Violetta and Luisa Miller in recent years, but she topped even these achievements in the role of Jen?fa. All three areas of her voice are equally supple and focused in tone; she attacks the language with gusto; and more than anything, she remains a formidable actress.
As her murderous step-mother Kostelny?ka, Mason gave a barn-storming performance of gravitas and concentration. Her wide-ranging monologue in Act Two brought the performance to life and her dignified stance in the closing scenes, when she confesses to the crime of killing Jen?fa's baby, brought subtlety to the final climax.
Tom Randle was their equal in vocal ability, his wonderfully plentiful lyric resources melting nicely into the orchestral texture as Laca, but he was a rather redundant actor. Less vocally dexterous, Aldo Di Toro nevertheless brought life to the character of Steva, and although Nuala Willis left a lot to be desired as a singer, she did at least look the part as Grandmother Burya.
Director Olivia Fuchs would have done well to help certain of the singers - not only Randle, but many of those playing smaller parts as well - to act with more fluidity, but without doubt, she got to the heart of this grim but uplifting story. Yannis Thavoris resorted to simple settings for the opera, but acoustically at least, the simple V-shaped wall representing Kostelny?ka's cottage was effective in throwing the voices forward towards the audience (whereas they tended to be drowned out before the interval). Clare Whistler's choreography for the chorus seemed a little unimaginative, though the small stage space probably prohibits anything too elaborate.
Although the City of London Sinfonia played with evident pleasure and virtuosity, I wasn't totally convinced by Stuart Stratford's conducting. His rapport with the orchestra reaped dividends in their sumptuous playing. But any musical gestures were thrown away - not to mention the closing chord of the opera - and he does not breathe with the singers.
Overall, however, it really was a triumph. To sing on such a chilly early-summer's evening with such devotion and fervour as these performers did is truly admirable. It really is worth the trip to Kensington to see talent like this put to a good cause.