After a dearth of staged Janáček operas in London, a trip to Leeds to see the ever-resourceful Opera North revive Tom Cairns’ twenty-year-old Jenůfa staging was too mouth watering a prospect to pass by. Having seen Opera North perform at Sadler’s Wells in London several times, we took the opportunity to experience them on their home turf in the Grand Theatre, Leeds.
Cairns’ staging had received many plaudits when new, and at its last outing in 2002, but nothing could have prepared us for such a viscerally exciting, emotionally-draining performance of Janáček’s most accessible opera, delivered at fever pitch by an outstanding cast under the idiomatic baton of Aleksandar Marković. We’ve been privileged to attend many outstanding performances of Jenůfa over the last thirty years but this one ranks as one of the very finest.
Cairns’ staging, in his own evocative designs, tells the story with clarity and in the process draws vivid portrayals from every member of the cast. And what a cast it is! In the title role Swedish soprano Ylva Kihlberg delivers a wonderfully sympathetic performance. Sometimes the tone has a tendency to spread under pressure, but she charted the character’s progression from love-struck young woman to bereaved mother, who can still find it in her heart to forgive both Laca and the Kostelnicka, faultlessly. Her prayer to the Virgin Mary in the second act had an innocent tenderness that melted the heart.
Ed Lyon brought plenty of priapic swagger to the role of Steva, and was charming and caddish in equal measure. It was easy to see how Jenůfa could fall for him, and his singing had the necessary weight and colour to create a fully fleshed-out character.
As his step-brother, vying for Jenůfa’s love, David Butt Philip was nothing short of a revelation as Laca. The voice has the necessary heft to cut through an orchestra at full pelt, yet he never sacrifices its lyrical beauty in the process. His cries of ‘Jenůfa’ in Act II pinned you to the back of your seat, yet elsewhere he produced plenty of glorious honey-toned vocalism, no more so in the closing duet with Jenůfa. This outstanding performance, along with his memorable Rodolfo with ENO last season, gives notice of a major talent and he looks destined to become one of this country’s most exciting tenors.
Despite these sterling performances, the lynchpin of the evening was Susan Bickley’s shattering Kostelnicka. For many years now Bickley has been one of our most distinguished singing-actresses, yet it’s doubtful if she’s done anything finer than this. Immediately commanding the stage from her first entrance she inhabited the role completely. Her disintegration in the middle act was superbly etched, whilst her gaunt, terrified appearance in the final act, evidently haunted by her actions, was almost too painful to watch. True, some of the high-lying passages are out of her comfort zone, but she turned the occasional strain to her advantage, delivering an astonishing account of this complex role.
Each and every member of the ON orchestra played out of their skins for Marković, setting the seal on an extraordinary evening of music drama. It’s just a shame the theatre wasn’t packed to the rafters. If you can’t catch it in Leeds, make sure you do on the tour, as opera doesn’t get much better than this.