Janáček’s heroine teaches the village girls to read and write so that they may ‘better themselves,’ or in other words get away from this severe, oppressive milieu characterized by petty rivalries, religious bigotry and matriarchal dominance. Katie Mitchell’s 1998 production, here crisply revived by Robin Tebbutt, evokes this environment in the most simple, effective way, the realism of these stark settings contrasting with the inherent nobility of most of the characters, a nobility which infuses the music with throbbing passion and which is finely evoked here in the persons of Natalya Romaniw’s Jenůfa and Susan Bullock’s Kostelnička.
It may appear perverse to attribute nobility to the stepmother’s character, but there is so much more to her than the ‘baby killer’ and resentful would-be matriarch, and Susan Bullock’s magisterial performance brought it all out – the violence she suffered at the hands of her husband, and her feelings of guilt and shame were all evoked in abundance, but you also saw the pride and hope and love she had for Jenůfa – hopes of a better life for her, just as Jenůfa herself wanted that for the younger girls. The Kostelnička’s central position in this rigidly God-fearing society was also made clear in Susan Bullock’s sometimes anguished but always noble and dignified performance, which provided an object lesson in demonstrating the fact that there is no need to gnash your teeth and mangle the furniture in order to reveal a tortured soul.
She was matched by Natalya Romaniw’s heroine, giving a deeply touching portrait of this wonderful operatic creation. All the most affecting moments, such as when she tells Števa ‘Now you know what true love is! May it never hurt you’ went right to the heart (or rather the eyes) and she rose to the big vocal occasions with serenity, not least in her ‘prayer.’ Marie Stejskalová (the Janáčeks’ maid) wrote in her memoirs that “…the master’s heart so wept and bled when he wrote it” and the intensity of feeling in the music was fully captured here.
If the other performances were not quite at this level, that is not to say that they were less than first rate. Peter Hoare seemed a touch under-directed as Laca, but his singing soared with passion, at times recalling the great Philip Langridge. Nicky Spence sang resonantly as Števa, almost, but not quite, making you feel sorry for him at times, and Anne Marie Owens was so vivid a Grandmother Burya that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the part.
Minor casting, as is the rule with this company, was exceptionally strong. Harry Thatcher is clearly a name to watch, his Stárek powerfully sung and impressively characterized, Eleanor Garside was a very touching Jana, Heather Ireson a sympathetic Karolka, Alexandra Lowe a vivid Barena, and Amy Lyddon and Jessica Robinson made their mark as Pastuchyna and Tetka respectively. Jihoon Kim once more impressed with his very fine bass in the sometimes awkward part of the Mayor, and Hanna-Lisa Kirchen, as his wife, turned up the screws to fine effect with her ‘I would never have been married without my wedding ribbons! Never!’ Poor Jenůfa, in her dove grey dress, surrounded by such social expectations!
The chorus of village lads and lasses sang lustily and were tactfully directed, and the BBC Concert Orchestra once again played at a level beyond expectations, directed by William Lacey with sympathetic skill. Vicky Mortimer’s original design confines the action mostly to one small room, naturalistically kitted out and finely lit by Nigel Edwards and Paul Keogan. This not only increases the claustrophobia of the characters’ lives but serves to focus more sharply on the most intimate and emotional moments, especially when these are performed with such blazing intensity.
There are a few tickets left, but remember to tuck a tissue into your reticule, and if babies’ little red caps, ‘which I knitted for him’ tend to make you emotional, make that two.
For booking information, click here: grangeparkopera.co.uk/whats-on