Photo, Ellie Kurttz

Monday, March 25, 2024

The Coliseum, London

Guest Reviewer, Curtis Rogers

David Alden’s production of Janáček’s first operatic masterpiece, Jenůfa, for English National Opera – last seen at the Coliseum in 2016 – keeps its Czech setting but brings the action forwards to the Communist era, around the 1960s. It’s a grey, oppressive environment – the Buryja Mill (now rather more an industrial factory) and then the Kostelnička’s house both firmly hemmed in by walls. However, they seem to be designed not so much to prevent intruders coming in as to stop the characters from breaking out of their life of drudgery, and of dull conformity to convention and the judgmental opinion of society beyond, the latter represented with ironic humour by Morag Boyle’s hectoring Neighbour, whom even the Grandmother wants to hit.

Števa offers a glimpse of an apparent sort of freedom, louche and unruly as he is, clad in leather like a rocker, standing opposed to the discipline of the army into which some of his peers are recruited, and the stern, hypocritical piety of the Kostelnička. Those walls of oppression are only breached towards the end as the crowd, baying for the Kostelnička’s punishment for murdering Jenůfa’s baby in the lake, break them apart and burst in. But they are repulsed, not by force, but by the power of Jenůfa’s magnanimous act of forgiveness and desire to move on from tragedy and embrace a new life with Laca, not the wayward Števa, as she confronts the village folk personally. The production conveys well enough, therefore, the redemption and moral probity that can come from within even the gloomiest and toughest environment – just as Jenůfa’s little rosemary plant stands solitary but defiant at the front of the stage in the opening scene.

Jennifer Davis takes a little while to break in the full psychological complexity of the title role; when she does, the effusive articulation of her vocal phrases makes them sound oddly like Gospel music. Susan Bullock’s Kostelnička also starts somewhat uncertainly with a squally timbre. But her longer sequences in Act II enable her to attain more fearsome tonal focus and variety, even capturing some degree of fragility and fear on the character’s part as she contends with the perceived shame of Jenůfa’s illegitimate baby and a disturbing vision of death at the end of the Act. Richard Trey Smagur’s vociferous account conveys Laca’s impetuous and blustering personality, giving the role a more conflicted, complex dimension than the simpleton he is sometimes played as. In fact, it is Števa here who is the more one-dimensional, carefully expressed by John Findon with a more withdrawn and casual raffishness, for all his menacing swagger in person.

Even taking into account the Grandmother’s age as personified, Fiona Kimm is a touch rough, and the other minor parts of the Foreman, the Mayor, and Karolka are played more with vivid caricature than musical subtlety, though it all adds a certain colour to Alden’s otherwise grim vision of this village community, where the principal characters are often rather static. 

Keri-Lynn Wilson’s reading of the score with the ENO Orchestra and Chorus is convincingly dramatic, driven but not hectored. Each Act is taken as a broad sweep so that the music tends to surge towards its climaxes in Romantic fashion rather than carried more tautly from bar to bar or musical cell to musical cell as is the characteristic nature of Janáček’s score. That matches the effect of the opera as sung in English here, where the words seem to bring out of the singers more sustained, lyrical lines, rather than the more rhythmically clipped effect of the original. Sometimes the ends of musical phrases are awkward when they necessitate the repetition of words which wouldn’t occur in idiomatic English because the vocal notes called for must be filled up with something. Otherwise, the overall effect is a reasonable compromise and, along with the production itself, does bring a human and social immediacy to the drama, making this a worthwhile revival.

Janáček

Jenůfa – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by the composer after the play Její pastorkyňa by Gabriela Preissová [sung in English with English surtitles]

Jenůfa – Jennifer Davis

Kostelnička – Susan Bullock

Laca – Richard Trey Smagur

Števa – John Findon

Grandmother Buryja – Fiona Kimm

Foreman – Darren Jeffery

Mayor – Freddie Tong

Mayor’s Wife – Madeleine Shaw

Karolka – Segomotso Masego Shupinyaneng

Barena – Isabelle Peters

Jano – Julieth Lozano Rolong

Neighbour – Morag Boyle

Villager – Claire Pendleton

Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera

Keri-Lynn Wilson

David Alden – Director

Charles Edwards – Designer

Jon Morrell – Costumes

Adam Silverman – Lighting

Ian Jackson-French – Revival Lighting

Maxine Braham – Choreographer