Longborough Festival Opera – Janáček’s Jenůfa – Lee Bisset, Gaynor Keeble, Daniel Norman, Andrew Rees; directed by Richard Studer; conducted by Jonathan Lyness

Jenůfa – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by the composer based on the play Její pastorkyňa by Gabriela Preissová [sung in an English translation by Otakar Kraus & Sir Edward Downes, with English surtitles]

Jenůfa – Lee Bisset
Grandmother Buryja – Maria Jagusz
Laca Klemeň – Daniel Norman
Jano – Elizabeth Karani
Starek, the mill foreman – Mark Saberton
Kostelnička Buryjovka – Gaynor Keeble
Števa Buryja – Andrew Rees
Barena – Laura Ruhi Vidal
Mayor – Piotr Lempa
Mayor’s wife – Louise Mott
Karolka – Nazan Fikret

Longborough Festival Chorus & Orchestra
Jonathan Lyness

Richard Studer – Director & Designer
Wayne Dowdesell – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 16 July, 2016
Venue: Longborough Festival Opera, Longborough, Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire, England

Longborough Festival Opera's production of Janáček’s JenůfaPhotograph: Matthew Williams-EllisThere is nowhere to hide at Longborough, and Richard Studer’s new staging of Janáček’s Jenůfa mostly stands up well to close scrutiny. Raised platforms, a few vertical poles and a neutrally lit backcloth suggest inward-looking Moravian village life, and there is a mill-wheel defining the villagers’ narrow horizons. The set is unobtrusive without being unduly abstract; the only missing element is the sequence of seasons, so that the winter of the second Act went almost unobserved.

The costumes (also by Studer) nudged the period forward by a generation from the 19th-century to around the 1930s, so that traditional peasant dress mingled unselfconsciously with a more modern style. The various social hierarchies – the mayor, farm labourers – made their mark, and all the main characters, already vividly drawn in the music, emerged as individuals caught in their complicated knot of family relationships. It’s not surprising that sibling rivalry is so fierce in this opera.

The one factor that didn’t gel was the Kostelnička, a pillar of ramrod moral and social probity, who keeps both the village and the extended Buryja family in line and cherishes high ambitions for her stepdaughter Jenůfa. It shouldn’t matter that Gaynor Keeble looked younger than Laca and Števa and from about the same generation as Jenůfa, but the Kostelnička needs a few more years to assert her dominance. The staging also played down the Kostelnička’s key religious role in the community, a lack that hindered her unassailable authority, even when in Act One she sings a longer version of the explanatory passage detailing her brutal early marriage.

Longborough Festival Opera's production of Janáček’s JenůfaPhotograph: Matthew Williams-EllisKeeble’s performance was best in Act Three, as a now-broken haunted woman, and Jenůfa’s forgiveness to the stepmother who drowned Jenůfa’s illegitimate child packed the necessary emotional punch. Act Two’s vital sequence of dialogues, as the Kostelnička tries to find her way out of the dishonour resulting from Jenůfa’s pregnancy, veered too easily into eye-rolling melodrama, with Keeble’s voice sounding unduly pressured. In its way her portrayal was a tour de force, and there was no denying that its sustained drama kept you on the edge of your seat.

Lee Bisset’s Jenůfa, though, went from strength to strength. There was never a moment when her identification with the role faltered, from her anxiety over her illicit pregnancy to her glorious, redemptive forgiveness. Despite the vagaries of the translation – and of the surtitles, which kept disappearing, often at crucial moments – Bisset’s singing kept in touch with the orchestra, and her voice has range, tenderness, vulnerability, volume and attack. It was a compelling, sympathetic rendition, one that also made her oblique relationship with Laca entirely convincing.

He was played by Daniel Norman, who made Laca’s obsessive love of Jenůfa entirely credible. He was well-matched by Andrew Rees’s firmly sung, drunken, womanising Števa, the village Lothario who made Jenůfa pregnant; he was particularly effective in the Act Two showdown with the Kostelnička.

The smaller roles all made telling contributions – Mark Saberton’s Foreman and Piotr Lempa’s Mayor keeping the standard of Janáček’s inimitable vocal characterisation high, and Maria Jagusz was a vivid, idiomatic Grandmother.

Jonathan Lyness’s explosive conducting resulted in some slippery ensemble, but he gauged the emotional temperature perfectly, and there was lovely playing, especially in all those supercharged solos.

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