Reviewer's Rating

Moravian born Leoš Janáček significantly influenced the advancement of 20th Century opera. He used Moravian folklore and folk music. Each character has their individual speech pattern (lost in translation).

Janáček founded the Brno Janáček centre for performing arts and music (now a new state-of-the-art theatre) where most of his operas premiered. Due to the enmity of Prague’s head of opera, Janáček waited 10 years for Prague to stage Jenůfa in 1916. It was 50-year-old Janáček’s breakthrough. Performed 80 times in his lifetime, Jenůfa is his most popular opera.

Jenůfa is based on 28-year-old Gabriela Preissová’s play – Její pastorkyňa- ‘Her Stepdaughter’. The play was attacked for being brutal, revolting and immoral. The young author, so traumatised by these attacks, never wrote anything sensitive again.

Jenůfa combined two real-life crime shockers – a girl’s face slashed through jealousy, and the discovery of a dead baby’s body. It was composed when Janáček’s daughter Olga was dying. The composer projected his pain and Olga’s suffering into the score, dedicated to Olga’s memory.

Last staged at ENO in 2016, David Alden’s production is set in an isolated Communist industrial estate, updating the original setting in a traditional Moravian village. A picture of Alexander Dubček, hangs in the office.

Two half-brothers love Jenůfa, who falls for, and is secretly pregnant by, the wrong one -the feckless factory owner’s son, Steva.  Laca, Steva’s initially creepy, violent half-brother, loves Jenůfa who constantly rejects him. Jealous Laca slashes Jenůfa’s cheek. Kostelniča hides Jenůfa until she has her baby boy. Steva, repulsed by the scar, refuses to see Jenůfa or her baby.  Laca loves Jenůfa, and would marry her but cannot accept Steva’s son. Kostelniča drowns the baby to free Jenůfa for marriage, and is forever consumed with guilt.

Irish soprano Jennifer Davis as Jenůfa dominates from the start. She has a gorgeous, warm and generous voice, radiant with love for Steva, desperate with grief for the loss of her baby. She inhabits the character beautifully.  The 71-year-old British mezzo Fiona Kimm is excellent as Grandmother Burja.

American tenor Richard Trey Smagur as Laca and British tenor John Findon as Steva, are both over 6’2”. They look so similar they are realistic half-brothers. Two sides of the same coin. Obnoxious leather-jacketed spiv and womaniser Steva, and ultimately good-hearted Laca with a violent streak who loves Jenůfa so deeply he accepts her despite everything. It is rare that both are so strongly sung.

British soprano Susan Bullock as Kostelniča is disappointing.  The role lies too low, despite some lovely high phrases. Although dramatically convincing, she sounds underpowered, resorting to declamation instead of singing.  She has excessive vibrato, occasional shrillness and some broken phrasing. Kostelniča is the glue holding the characters together in Act 2, but weakly sung, compromises the dramatic impact.

Act 3, inside Kostelniča’s house, folk melody and dance are welcome relief to the tragedy.

When the murder is discovered, the back of the house opens to let in the outraged townsfolk. After Kostelniča’s confession, they all disappear. ‘Take me away’ says Kostelniča, but there is oddly nobody left to arrest her. Her conscience is the driving force to get her punished for her crime.

Jenůfa and Laca, left alone, realise that they can be happy together. This scene is really convincing, due to the sensational singing and acting of both singers. Jenůfa’s love, forgiveness and ultimate redemption for Laca at the end, so often not believable, is utterly credible due to Davis’ vocal and dramatic brilliance. When the opera ends, the listener has been through an emotionally harrowing, intense journey.

This is a terrific evening and another example of the insanity of the Arts Council’s plans for ENO’s future. Where else in London would you hear opera of this calibre, except for the more expensive and heavily subsidised ROH?

This performance had empty seats, whereas Barber and Magic Flute are almost sold out. The ENO made an unfortunate statement saying that opera newcomers may prefer something not so emotionally complex or intense, steering them instead to Barber (light comedy) and Flute (stylised classical). What nonsense! Jenůfa is a human dilemma of an unmarried woman with a baby with more modern, intensely dramatic music Therefore it may resonate better with newcomers.

See this if you can. Jennifer Davis gives a world class performance.  With the enforced Arts Council death knell for ENO, are we likely to see this again?


English National Opera at the Coliseum

Music by Leoš Janáček (1854-1928)

Libretto Gabriela Preissová (based on her play Jeji pastorkyňa)

Conducted by Keri-Lynn Wilson

Directed by David Alden

Photo Credit Ellie Kurttz

Cast includes Jennifer Davis, Fiona Kimm, Susan Bullock, Richard Trey Smagur, John Findon, Darren Jeffrey, Segomotso Shupinyaneng

Running time 2 hours 40 minutes with one interval

13 – 27 March 2024 (6 performances)