English National Opera – Jenůfa

Jenůfa – Opera in three acts to a libretto by the composer after Gabriela Preissová’s play Její pastorkyňa [sung in an English translation by Otakar Kraus and Edward Downes with English surtitles]

Grandmother Buryjovka – Susan Gorton
Kostelnička Buryjovka – Michaela Martens
Jenůfa – Amanda Roocroft
Laca Klemeň – Robert Brubaker
Števa Buryja – Tom Randle
Foreman – Iain Paterson
Jano – Julia Sporsen
Barena – Claire Mitcher
Mayor – Peter Kestner
Mayor’s wife – Susanna Tudor-Thomas
Karolka – Mairead Buicke
Neighbour – Morag Boyle
Villager – Lyn Cook

Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera
Eivind Gullberg Jensen

David Alden – Director
Charles Edwards – Set designer
Jon Morrell – Costume designer
Adam Silverman – Lighting
Jon Clark – Lighting revival
Claire Glaskin – Choreographer

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 12 March, 2009
Venue: The Coliseum, London

There are only four more performances of English National Opera’s staging of Janáček’s first great opera. And I can easily imagine “Jenůfa”-junkies beating a path to all of them, just to reassure themselves that Amanda Roocroft’s portrayal of one of the great roles of 20th-century opera can really be so intense and so intelligent. One of the great rewards of theatre is witnessing someone completely inhabiting a role, and this is what Roocroft does, to devastating effect. Everything about Jenůfa – her vulnerability, warmth and courage – flows out of Roocroft’s overwhelmingly generous portrayal, which combines secure, fastidious musicianship and an open, lyrical soprano with a natural, easy style of acting; and she is extremely well directed by David Alden, who has returned to supervise ENO’s first revival of his 2006 award-winning production.

The original run, also with Amanda Roocroft, had Catherine Malfitano as the Kostelnička, Jenůfa’s stepmother and murderer of her illegitimate child. Michaela Martens, also American, was less – but not much less – histrionic and grandstanding. But, whoever sings the role, the fact remains that the context of the Kostelnička doesn’t quite make sense in Alden’s production.

He has moved the action from a dead-end Moravian village in the 19th-century to a dreary, grey Soviet-style factory (mystifyingly privately owned) in the 1960s or 1970s, which rather dissipates the impact of the Kostelnička as figure of ram-rod moral and religious probity, a community leader, into someone less sharply drawn. It’s not enough that she merely dominates.

At the beginning of Act Two, just after the birth of Jenůfa’s baby, she is already going to pieces, to the extent that her extraordinary, completely uncharacteristic abasement before Števa, when she begs him to make an honest woman of Jenůfa, comes across more as part of her collapse rather than as a manipulative display of the lengths she’s prepared to go to save her. That aside, Martens was a commanding presence, with a commanding voice, and the surreal drama of Act Two – egged on no end by Adam Silverman’s melodramatic lighting and Charles Edwards’s angular set – had incredible tension and power.

The two men in Jenůfa’s life, Laca and Števa, are just as strongly cast and, again, strongly directed by Alden to highlight the mutual loathing between the two half-brothers. Robert Brubaker’s heroically sung Laca moved convincingly from a man hopelessly corroded by jealousy and lack of self-worth to a figure of some stature. Tom Randle caught brilliantly the superficial, spivvy charms and deep-rooted cowardliness of Števa with his edgy, focused singing and acting.

Iain Paterson was on great form as the Foreman, and Susan Gorton was a vividly directed and sung Grandmother Buryja. Among the smaller roles, Morag Boyle’s Neighbour, Mairead Buicke’s Karolka and Susanna Tudor-Thomas’s Mayor’s wife were all outstanding.

Eivind Gullberg Jensen’s conducting was fiercely propulsive and rhythmic, and he produced some authentically Czech-sounding abrasiveness from the Orchestra. David Alden’s staging does not have the necessary cohesion but it is still a terrific attempt. And it does have Amanda Roocroft.

  • Further performances on 14 & 21 March at 6.30 p.m. and 17 & 19 March at 7.30
  • Box Office: 0871 911 0200
  • English National Opera

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