Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Jenůfa review – ENO revives Janáček’s masterpiece with thrilling results

13 March 2024


Two sopranos shine in this exceptional revival of Jenůfa which sees English National Opera in blistering form.

Jenůfa

Jenůfa (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

Contrary to the blurb on its website purporting to deter people from attending Jenůfa, as they might find it too difficult – better attend The Magic Flute, with its crystal clear plot (really?) – Leoš Janáček’s searing operatic masterpiece is a brilliant entry point for anyone wanting to dip their toe in the operatic water. Not only is the plot easy to follow, but the Czech composer’s musical idiom – lean, terse, and dramatically intense – propels the story forward towards its inexorable and shattering climax in a way that few composers can equal. 

Quite rightly, the operatic Twitterverse was agog at the company ostensibly shooting itself in the foot – they don’t make it easy for themselves do they? Especially at a time when there’s a huge amount of goodwill out there for them. Maybe this was one of the reasons why the Coliseum was only half full on an opening night. A shame, as this was an evening of such power and intensity, that I left the theatre feeling emotionally drained, yet uplifted – as any even halfway decent performance of this masterpiece should.

This performance, however, was much more than ‘halfway decent’. David Alden’s staging was new in 2006, here revived for the third time. I’ve been fortunate to see every incarnation, and this revival was one of the very best. Although now 18 years old, it still packs an enormous theatrical punch, and Alden’s updating of the action – to an Eastern European, nondescript Soviet-era setting in Charles Edwards’ shabby designs – provides the perfect foil for some exceptional performances.

Susan Bullock is one of the country’s finest singing actors, here taking on the pivotal role of the Kostelnička, Jenůfa’s stepmother, for the first time at her ‘home’ company. Not only did she capture the character’s rigid religious outlook on life to perfection – stiff back, unflinching in her demeanour – but also charted the journey from guardian of the town’s morals, to murderer, and then finally repentant, faultlessly. Yes, the voice may have lost some of its power and lustre, but this didn’t detract from a performance that ranks up there with the role’s very best interpreters, and where required, most notably in the conclusion to the second act, the glint and steel in the voice returned to astonishing effect. 

“…I left the theatre feeling emotionally drained, yet uplifted…”

Jenůfa

Jenůfa (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

She was ably partnered by Jennifer Davis, whose Jenůfa was one of the most touching and heartbreaking I’ve seen. Catapulted to fame as Elsa von Brabant in The Royal Opera’s 2018 staging of Lohengrin, which she returned to sing to huge acclaim in 2022, and then in Berlin, her appearance as Janáček’s tragic heroine was hugely anticipated – and she did not disappoint. Her silvery soprano has gained extra weight, allowing her to fill the Czech composer’s soaring vocal lines with glorious, rounded tone, allied to crystal clear diction. Her prayer to the Virgin Mary was beautifully etched, her despair on learning of her baby’s death almost too painful to watch. She brought an astonishing range of colours to the voice, each perfectly attuned to the gamut of emotions the character experiences, her gleaming, impassioned, thrillingly-voiced duet with Laca which closes the opera, setting the seal on a remarkable performance that will live long in the memory.

As Laca, American tenor Richard Trey Smagur, made a fine impression – his rugged, rough-hewn tenor coping admirably with the high-lying passages of the role – and he cut a credible figure, dramatically as well. He was nicely matched by John Findon’s more lyrical Števa – for once the pair could easily pass as brothers – who cemented his position, following his Grimes and Mime (The Rhinegold) for the company, as an exciting new operatic talent.

The supporting cast was strong, most notably Fiona Kimm as a tower of strength as Grandmother Buryja and Darren Jeffrey as a forthright Foreman of the mill. Once past a tentative first act, where the soloists, chorus and orchestra failed to coalesce on occasion, conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson led a powerful reading of the work in the pit. Act II blazed from start to finish, while she allowed the tragic denouement to unfold unerringly well in the last act, where the orchestra played like lions for her.

This is the company’s final fully-staged offering this season, and demands to be seen by anyone who believes in the transformative power of opera.

• Details of upcoming performances can be found here.


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