Sunday, January 14, 2024

Barbican Hall, London

Guest Reviewer, Curtis Rogers

Janáček’s Jenůfa, like his other operas, bears the paradox that, although the drama deals with some very flawed character traits, the music sweeps all before it to an uplifting conclusion, transcending all the hardship and turmoil that has passed. It is not even that redemption or absolution comes from some unexpected source outside of those characters’ milieu but arises from within their own innate strength of personality and goodness (or some of them at least).

In this concert performance Simon Rattle led a full-blooded, charged account of the work where the emotional effect was drawn not from the moment-to-moment interest or tension generated by Janáček’s ever-shifting musical motifs or cells (though these were propulsive enough) but from a more sustained fervour carried across those units. It was possible to hear more continuous, lyrical melody than one perhaps expects in this music, even also counterpoint as the various instrumental timbres merged into a generally warm, fluent texture.

As with the equally bold performance by these forces of Katya Kabanová this time last year, it was almost as though the drama were conveyed through the orchestra alone, and the voices merely supplementary. That it wasn’t was due to the eloquent line-up of singers and the alert Chorus completing the rich tapestry of sound, and to close entwining of the two layers, shown not least in the way that LSO Leader Benjamin Gilmore’s phrases on the violin in Act II so sympathetically mimicked the moans of a human voice as Jenůfa comes round from Kostelnička’s drug-induced fever.

Agneta Eichenholz replaced Asmik Grigorian in the title role, giving a coolly resilient account, telling of a character who has already borne much and will selflessly bear more – as though a still small voice of calm amidst the personal and social commotion that goes on around her in the rest of the drama. By contrast Katarina Karnéus was splendidly versatile, the varieties of her vocal tone making Kostelnička the focal point of the outward drama – measured and quietly calculating in Act I; then purposeful and cunning as she hatches her terrible plan to despatch Jenůfa’s illegitimate baby, but coaxing to Števa as she tries to persuade him to marry Jenůfa; and breaking under the weight of guilt in Act III. But at root was a fundamentally human character, compelling a certain degree of understanding for her murderous actions (to forestall Jenůfa’s further ostracisation by the community) rather than outright condemnation of her as an overweening monster. Aleš Briscein’s cogent, ringing Laca presented an absorbing foil to Nicky Spence’s blustering, impulsive Števa, the bad boy with whom Jenůfa is initially in love, before recognising his half-brother Laca’s greater dependability. A few stretched high notes from both made very little difference to the overall impression. Carole Wilson gave an effective hectoring expression to the part of the Grandmother, while Jan Martiník exuded an apt vigour as the figures of authority, the Mayor and the Foreman. This was a distinguished and rewarding performance from all concerned.

Janáček

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

Jenůfa – Agneta Eichenholz

Kostelnička – Katarina Karnéus

Laca – Aleš Briscein

Števa – Nicky Spence

Grandmother Buryjovka – Carole Wilson

Foreman/Mayor – Jan Martiník

Mayor’s Wife – Hanna Hipp

Karolka – Evelin Novak

Herdswoman/Barena – Claire Barnett-Jones

Jano – Erika Baikoff

London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra

Sir Simon Rattle

A review by Peter Reed will appear on The Classical Source website