English National Opera’s new Jenufa is a powerful and moving account of Jancek’s opera and includes a number of very impressive debut performances.
Earlier in the year, Christopher Alden directed a thrilling production of Jancek’s The Makropolus Case and now David Alden directs the composer’s first success.
Alden is perhaps best known at ENO for his Ariodante, which was revived a few months ago, and with Jenufa he rivals his brother’s triumph in bringing a Jancek masterpiece to life.
It begins in a modern industrial setting, rather than the more familiar domestic one, and becomes increasingly stylised as the evening goes on. Act 1 is set outside a realistic middle-European factory while the house scenes of the following two acts take place in a non-naturalistic room with sloping walls and low ceiling. There are sudden and dramatic lighting changes that have little to do with the Czech electricity supply and more to do with the characters’ inner struggles. By the end, the household is quite literally torn apart although Jancek’s music blazes with life-affirming optimism and compassion.
Jancek based his opera on a play by his fellow Czech Gabriela Preissov, who was writing gritty socially-realistic dramas at the turn of the twentieth century. Jenufa deals with the plight of unmarried mothers, a subject very close to the composer, whose daughter Olga suffered a similar fate to the opera’s heroine. Jancek balances a harrowing account of baby murder with tremendous sympathy for a cast of characters caught in an oppressive and destructive society.
In the title role, Amanda Roocroft is as good as I have seen her for quite a while. She sings with beautiful tone and her acting is subtle and convincing. It’s a touching portrayal of a damaged woman, whose choice of men may be questionable but who is far more sinned against than sinning. Catherine Malfitano, in her ENO debut, is haunted and haunting as the baby murderer Kostelnicka, who we see as a victim as much as a monster. This is a quite formidable performance of one of the most powerful roles in all opera.
The performance of the night, though, is the stunning debut of Australian tenor Stuart Skelton, who sings with great beauty and a fine dramatic sense. From the beginning, his Laca is sympathetic and believable. I don’t know why we haven’t seen him in London before but I expect Covent Garden to be knocking at his door. Paul Charles Clarke is effective as the loutish Steva and would be all the more impressive if he weren’t up against Skelton. Although he sang in ENO’s concert version of Thais at the Barbican last year, this was also Clarke’s first appearance on the Coliseum stage.
There are excellent supporting performances, most notably Susan Gorton‘s battleaxe Grandmother, who injects moments of comedy into the grimness, and Iain Paterson, memorable as the Foreman.
Mikhail Agrest, of the Mariinsky Theatre (yet another ENO debut) conducts a vibrant and exciting performance, bringing out the distinctive colours of Jancek’s wonderful score. The Act 2 violin solo after Kostelnicka has left with the baby is beautifully played by Guest Leader Janice Graham.
Jenufa uses an English translation by Otakar Kraus and Edward Downes, with the now regular use of surtitles at most performances.
Surprisingly, ENO has produced Jenufa only once before, a dozen or so years ago when it was less than successful from what I remember. Along with The Makropolus Case, I hope this new production will become a regular part of the repertoire for some time to come.