First impressions of Grange Park Opera’s new theatre at West Horsley Place are of a close, resonant acoustic, and, in its horseshoe configuration with a number of tiers ranged around the stalls, excellent sightlines. The orchestra pit is capacious, and when work (there is much to be done) is no longer in progress, it should be a jewel of a house. It is staggering that Wasfi Kani and her team have achieved so much in such a short time.
Grange Park’s Jenůfa is based on Katie Mitchell’s 1998 Welsh National Opera production designed by Vicki Mortimer, adapted not quite to fill the new stage. Its 1940s’ look of joyless, practical thrift speaks volumes and reinforces powerfully the opera’s claustrophobia and yearning for release. The direction has some telling details to watch out for, and I think it is the first staging I’ve seen where Jenůfa has physical contact with her bastard newborn son – whom her stepmother drowns to preserve family proprieties in their enclosed community – both as a thriving infant and as a frozen corpse identified by the red cap we’ve seen Jenůfa knitting for him. And, as with virtually every production I’ve seen, this one doesn’t address the Kostelnička’s religious authority.
Instead, the staging zooms in on corrosive family strife and jealousy with unstinting accuracy. The only thing that doesn’t work is the closing vision, accompanying Janáček’s transcendent music, of a little boy (presumably the drowned son) in a garden of lilies waving to his mother, which is mawkish and out of keeping with the production’s hard realism.
Susan Bullock is making her role debut as the Kostelnička. Bullock is a magnificent singer-actress who can expand a role without ever exaggerating it. Her portrayal, with some minutely observed body language, explains why the Kostelnička is such an inflexible, intimidating figure, and while her singing doesn’t always have the volume for the character’s authority and anguish, her voice leans deeply into Janáček’s raw vocal lines and subtly teases out the Kostelnička’s overweening pride. It was astonishing how at the start of Act Three, after the murder, you can almost see the Kostelnička’s process of disintegration.
Natalya Romaniw, making her debut as Jenůfa, is beautifully cast as a young woman larger in spirit, and infinitely more vulnerable, than the rest of her family and her neighbours. She rather overplayed the edge to her voice, but later found a warmth and lyricism particularly well-suited to Jenůfa's lovely ‘Salve regina’ – sung as she prays with her rosary, another good directorial touch – in Act Two and her radiant and perfectly judged ascendancy that eventually defines her character’s strength.
The two men in Jenůfa’s life, Laca and Steva, are sung and acted with astonishing power and verismo by respectively Peter Hoare and Nicky Spence, the former (who deliberately disfigures Jenůfa’s face) oozing bitterness and resentment, the latter (who is the father of her illegitimate child) the sweaty, drunken horror who happens to be the richest young man in the village, both sung with superb confidence and freedom and, again, directed with great imagination.
Among the smaller roles are a trenchant Grandmother Burya from Anne Marie Owens, Harry Thatcher’s decisive, agile Stárek, and Eleanor Garside’s lively Jana (usually Jano, a trousers-role for a soprano, but transgendered for the purposes of this production).
From the opening music of the mill wheel – the mill both sustains and confines the village – William Lacey makes sure that Janáček’s wiry, astringent music sounds with maximum force, enhanced by the BBC Concert Orchestra’s primary-colour immediacy.