English National Opera – Jenůfa

Jenůfa [sung in English]

Jenůfa – Amanda Roocroft
Kostelnicka – Catherine Malfitano
Laca – Stuart Skelton
Steva – Paul Charles Clarke
Grandmother – Susan Gorton
Foreman – Iain Paterson
Jano – Elizabeth Cragg
Barena – Moira Harris
Mayor – Russell Smythe
Mayor’s Wife – Sarah Pring
Karolka – Lee Bisset
Neighbour – Kathleen Wilkinson
Villager – Lyn Cook

Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera
Mikhail Agrest

David Alden – Director
Charles Edwards – Set designer
Jon Morrell – Costume designer
Adam Silverman – Lighting designer

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 9 October, 2006
Venue: The Coliseum, London

“Jenůfa” has enjoyed a fair number of London stagings in recent years, placing the opera in a variety of dramatic contexts. For English National Opera’s new co-production, with Houston Grand Opera and Washington National Opera, David Alden has opted for the viable if at times awkward combination of a late-Soviet setting with elements of period naturalism which would not have been out of place at the time that Gabriela Preissová’s original play is set. While this leads to some striking scenic contrasts – not least the arrival of a folk-like mêlée of villagers andmusicians into the dour small-town stagnation mid-way through Act One – it can also effect a jarring continuity in the public gatherings of the outer acts, when sets and characters most likely removed from each other in time and place come together to not necessarily convincing dramatic effect.

This is not a problem, however, in Act Two – when the tense dialogue between Kostelnicka and Jenůfa, as well as the former’s briefer but no less charged confrontations with Steva and Laca, are afforded added immediacy through Charles Edwards’s powerfully claustrophobic set (similar, in its oblique anglesand narrow perspectives to that which made the corresponding act of “The Makropoulos Case” so impressive at ENO earlier this year) and Adam Silverman’s subtly varied lighting. Whether the opening-out of this set at the climax of Act Three is meant to ‘take the lid off’ in terms analogous visually to those musically, is a moot point, but the sense of the production underscoring the work’s impact remains. Certainly no one seeing the opera for a first time in this staging is likely to miss the dramatic point.

Vocally, the cast does not so much improve as gel in its respective roles between the first two acts (this being the original ‘Brno version’, with its demonstrably more conventional dramatisation, may explain such a disparity). Neither Paul Charles Clarke’s Steva nor, crucially, Stuart Skelton’s Laca are especially sympathetic at first encounter: the former’s boorish demeanour on avoiding conscription making him the unlikeliest of suitors for so intelligent a heroine; the latter’s alternately aggressive and supine behaviour suggesting less inferiority complex than character disorder, the knife-slashing incident passing for little musically or dramatically. Both singers fulfil their roles more convincingly thereafter, Skelton finding a new level of compassion as he entreats the hapless Jenůfa to be his.

The role of the Kostelnicka has had some memorable assumptions over recent years, with that from Catherine Malfitano no exception. Suitably implacable as she fatally comes between Jenůfa and Steva in Act One, her extremes of anguish and self-absorption thereafter are powerfully rendered, but with the expressive emphasis always on the vocal line through which Janáček starkly portrays her descent into near-madness – with the reserve of strength drawn upon when she admits to the child’s murder no less harrowing in its intensity. Susan Gorton is sympathetic in the significant if far less complex role of the Grandmother, evincing feelings of great tenderness for all her relative helplessness in the face of the events. From among the smaller roles, Elizabeth Cragg’s vivaciously naïve Jano and Sarah Pring’s spitefully hypocritical Mayor’s Wife are both highly apposite to the characters in question.

However, it is Amanda’s Roocroft who ultimately – and rightly – steals the show. A touching if hardly charismatic Jenůfa in Act One, for all that she conveys an essential goodness, she leaves her imprint thereafter with singing responsive to the role’s vulnerability and often misguided sense of trust. The conviction, moreover, with which she conveys forgiveness and acceptance at the opera’s climax, and her heightened emotion in the closing duet with Laca (Janáček’s original conception thrillingly realised)confirm her absolute identity with the part. Roocroft’s career may have been one of considerable highs and lows, but on the basis of this showing, she remains a singer of world-class stature.

Something of the first act’s relative lack of impact may be attributable to Mikhail Agrest who, though his conducting is by no means slack, seems content to let the music unfold without endowing it with greater dramatic scope. This comes after the interval – when the interplay of monologues and duets underpinning Act Two evinces a powerfully cumulative charge, and the control of dramatic momentum in Act Three is maintained through to the final bar. With the ENO Orchestra playing at or near its best throughout, and the ENO Chorus acquitting its sporadic but important contribution with vigour, what initially seemed a decent if unremarkable interpretation had transformed itself into a truly memorable one by the close.

Jenůfa novices and aficionados alike should most certainly see it.

  • Further performances on 12, 18, 20 & 26 October at 7.30; and 14 & 28 October at 6.30
  • Box Office: 0870 145 1700
  • English National Opera

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