This is one time when David Alden got it very right. HIs award-winning Jenufa production, being revived once more, is a provocative, moving and profoundly apt updating of this story in a more modern Czech Republic. The mill is a factory; the poverty of the region is palpable; the pitch perfect sets and costumes evoke the drabness of this world. This contemporary Eastern Europe is still a place dominated by a conservative, even retrograde, Catholic church and by a harsh, unyielding and sometimes hypocritical old-fashioned morality that has not changed.
None of the social and moral issues that disturbed Gabriela Preissova in 1890 when her play was premiered at the National Theatre in Prague, issues that inspired Janacek in the years he took to write and refine the opera, have really changed. For once this kind of updating is completely relevant. I have run across communities like the one Jenufa lives in, some in modern-day Moravia, similar ones in Poland. The people of those communities are the ones mainly driving the right wing resurgence, the conservatives’ flight into the past via church and nationalism. The odd pretty folk song written into the score by Janacek is not the point, though it does bring some relief.
The first act of this opera is still somewhat verismo in approach; and does have some of those scene setting, local colour folk elements. The musical language of the whole opera, especially in the second and third acts, is unique, stark, haunting, very lyrical, at times astringent; and the ENO orchestra under Mark Wigglesworth seems to me to completely understand it, especially the mixture of modernism and romantic lyricism required. The conception in this production really serves the piece from start to finish.
An important reason for seeing this revival, also, is the assumption of the main roles. I was impressed by the vocal prowess and acting ability of the big toned Steva of Nicky Spence who seems both vocally and physically to remind me of Jon Vickers. I thought Sarah LLabiner as Jano had a sweet lyrical voice that I would love to hear in longer roles. Peter Hoarewas vocally and historionically appealing as Laca. But the stars of the evening who gripped the audience throughout were the Kostelnicka of Michaela Martens, and her stepdaughter, the Jenufa of Laura Wilde. Martens’ mezzo had a depth and range that made the mixture of the character’s mother love and her passion for or obsession with respectability impressively powerful. She carried most of Act Two, as she must; and she managed to suggest powerfully the love she had for Jenufa.
Above all, Laura Wilde, making her London debut as Jenufa, was stunning. A young, emerging American singer, this was a perfect showcase for her beautiful, flexible voice and also her strong acting abilities. She drew us into Jenufa’s world; convinced us of her obsessive love for Steva and her forgiveness of the Kostelnicka; and finally she and Peter Hoare convincingly portrayed the redemptive and musically powerful ending.
The whole evening completely engaged the audience in the intensity of the drama. There was a long and well-deserved ovation at the end. This is the kind of performance that restores your faith in why lyrical music theatre works so powerfully and completely at its best. If you love this opera, then you will come away loving it even more; and if you have never seen it, this will introduce you to one of the most beautiful and moving pieces ever written for the lyric stage. Truly, do not miss it!
- Composer: Leos Janacek
- Libretto by the composer based on the play Her Stepdaughter by Gabriela Preissova
- Director: David Alden
- Production: English National Opera
- Cast Includes: Laura Wilde, Michaela Martens, Peter Hoare, Nickyspence, Sarah Labiner
- English National Opera, London
- Until 8 July 2016
- Review by Mel Cooper
- 24 June 2016