The London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Sir Simon Rattle (Agneta Eichenholz: Jen?fa, Katarina Karnéus: Kostelni?ka, Ale? Briscein: Laca, Nicky Spence: Steva, Jan Martiník: Starek, the Foreman/Mayor, Carole Wilson: Grandmother Buryjovka, Claire Barnett-Jones Barena/Herdswoman, Hanna Hipp: Rychtarka, Erika Baikoff: Jano, Evelin Novak: Karolka) perform Janá?ek's Jen?fa in the Barbican Hall on Thursday 11 Jan. 2024 Photo by Mark Allan


Reviewer's rating

Leoš Janáček, born in Moravia, was educated mainly in Brno. He collected melodies from Moravia and Slovakia. Thanks to him folklore melodies and customs have been preserved. Originally influenced by Dvořàk, he developed his own style incorporating recorded speech melodies which became his window to the human soul.

Janáček regularly organised concerts and operas in Brno, founding the Janáček centre for performing arts and music where most of his operas premiered. There is now a state-of-the-art new Janáček Theatre in Brno.

Janáček significantly influenced the advancement of 20th Century opera. Moravian folklore and folk music were his inspirational source, together with each character having their individual speech pattern. Combining this with two real-life stories, Jenůfa was ground-breaking. Composed when Janáček’s daughter Olga was dying, he projected his pain and Olga’s suffering into the score, dedicated to Olga’s memory.

Jenůfa is the latest Janacek opera staged in concert form by Sir Simon Rattle. A concert performance needs great singers and conducting as there is no orchestra pit. We are so close, it must convince, and, for the most part, it did; the singers made a more immediate impact. Rattle kept the tension perfectly, the folk music conducted with gusto, the endless repetition of the mill, and highlighting the dramatic musical sweep.

The vocal honours go to Czech superstar tenor, Aleš Briscein. Briscein has two Thalia awards (equivalent to BAFTAs) and is nominated for a third for Dvořák’s Armida in Pilsen. Briscein has a stunning instrument, cutting effortlessly through the large orchestra, yet also shows great artistry. His Laca is utterly convincing, his deep love for Jenůfa displayed in the warmth of the lyrical phrasing. His jealousy and loathing of Števa vocally and visually palpable. One understands how he accepts Jenůfa despite everything; but that taking on a baby the spitting image of Števa was one step too far.

The Czech tenor Aleš Brisceinas and the Swedish mezzo, Katarina Karneus.

Swedish mezzo, Katarina Karneus, as Kostelnička, won Cardiff in 1995 and sings mainly in Sweden. Relentlessly icy regarding Jenůfa’s relationship with arrogant drunkard Števa, due to her own experience of male brutality, she wants better for Jenůfa. Faced with impossible choices – Jenůfa with a future of ostracism for having an illegitimate child, or happiness with Laca, she chooses the latter, murdering the baby.  Karneus’ long Act 2 monologue was compelling, (despite a wayward top note or two), displaying lovely warm tone, good bottom register, artistic phrasing and convincing acting. Her iciness melts as she faces eternal damnation; the act 3 confession was haunted and harrowing.

Asmik Gregorian, due to sing Jenůfa, cancelled on 23rd December, was replaced by Swedish soprano Agneta Eichenholz. She looked haunted from the start, remaining huddled in her shawl, not reacting with the other singers. The voice is small, grainy, brittle, harsh at times, passionless, with no vocal palette, which was unchanged when madly in love, or distraught with horror.  Often, she could not be heard over the orchestra.  A strange choice, when there are so many excellent Czech sopranos with Jenůfa in their repertoire.

Scottish tenor, Nicky Spence, OBE, as the feckless waste-of-space Števa looked, sang and acted every inch of the spiv, with swagger and arrogance, wearing a leather biker jacket. His lyrical passages showed warm legato lines. He understands Števa’s character perfectly and was convincingly obnoxious.  Rarely does one have sympathy for Števa, but when he calls Jenufa ‘depressing and strange’ – with this Jenufa it is understandable. Especially when Števa’s fiancée, Karolka, lusciously sung by Croatian soprano Evelin Novak, is glamourous and outgoing.

Czech bass Jan Martiník won the Cardiff song prize in 2009, but sings below his potential. With his tall stature, he should work to develop a fuller, richer, beefier sound.

British mezzos Claire Barnett-Jones (Joan Sutherland audience prize-winner in Cardiff in 2021) and Carole Wilson’s Grandmother both displayed rich mezzo voices.

When Jakub Hrůša takes over the reins of ROH, he will hopefully bring more Czech stars such as Briscein and Czech operas with him.