The Royal Opera – Claus Guth’s new staging of Leoš Janáček’s Jenůfa with Asmik Grigorian & Karita Mattila conducted by Henrik Nánási

Janáček
Její pastorkyňa [Her Stepdaughter; Jenůfa] – opera in three acts to a libretto by the composer after the play Její pastorkyňa by Gabriela Preissová [Brno version, ed. Sir Charles Mackerras & Dr. John Tyrrell; sung in Czech with English surtitles]

★★★★★

Jenůfa – Asmik Grigorian
Kostelnička Buryjovka – Karita Mattila
Laca Klemeň – Nicky Spence
Števa Buryja – Saimir Pirgu
Grandmother Buryjovka – Elena Zilio
Stárek, the Mill Foreman – David Stout
Mayor – Jeremy White
Mayor’s Wife – Helene Schneiderman
Karolka – Jacquelyn Stucker
Herdswoman – Angela Simkin
Barena – April Koyejo-Audiger
Jano – Yaritza Véliz

Royal Opera Chorus

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Henrik Nánási

Director – Claus Guth
Set designer – Michael Levine
Costume designer – Gesine Völlm
Lighting designer – James Francombe
Choreographer – Teresa Rotemberg
Video – rocafilm
Dramaturg – Yvonne Gebauer


4 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 28 September, 2021
Venue: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

This production of Leoš Janáček’s early masterpiece was good to go in March 2020. Indeed, a full dress-rehearsal had taken place – photographs appear in the programme booklet. Alas, it was not to be, with the first lockdown preventing curtain-up. Now, some eighteen months later, Claus Guth’s masterful staging is here in triumph. There are a few changes to the originally planned cast, and the conductor Henrik Nánási is here instead of Vladimir Jurowski. But the critical central pair of Jenůfa and the Kostelnička remain.

Guth’s dramaturg presents the tangled web of relationships with precision and clarity, and alongside handsome and evocative sets, costumes and lighting, this story of controlled village life full of shame and self-loathing beneath a bucolic – here not specifically Moravian – surface is powerfully told in what is presented as a highly regimented society. There is much tragedy beneath the surface of the characters, but what comes across most intensely from this insular and insulated world is the hold of societal conventions, and how these lead to shame and to the most dastardly acts so as to save face. Murdering a newborn because he was born out of wedlock are the two crimes here. Ultimately, the characters are not in control: society’s expectations – could be from the Church, the State, what one thinks others demand – drive them. And we are looking-in on this.

Act One’s Mill is instead an inhabited dormitory: rows of beds all highly ordered, almost ritualistic. A cage-within-a-cage is the Second’s setting: the beds’ frames forming a prison in which Jenůfa is housed/hidden. Act Three has all of this cleared for an out-door scene, a village square, which is a stage for the village’s inhabitants to act as others watch from the sidelines. If this is life, then Shakespeare’s Macbeth was right indeed: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.”. At the end the fourth-wall is broken, as Laca and Jenůfa have broken free and escaped this backward world, into… who knows.

Jenůfa has committed the sinful act of having a child out of marriage. The man, of course, is not as guilty in this society’s eyes. Asmik Grigorian gave a beautifully sorrowful account, and she combined abject tragedy and horror of the part successfully. Karita Mattila was imperious and thoroughly commanding in both voice and acting – one sympathised with her with how she is compelled to act to remove her perceived shame. The pair of men in Jenůfa’s life, Laca and Števa, were well-portrayed by Nicky Spence and Saimir Pirgu, respectively, but the powerful women held the theatre, and so too a powerfully portrayed Grandmother Buryjovka from Elena Zilio. The Orchestra were on terrific form: the score is shaped as finely as the singing by Nánási, with propulsive drive and  moments of grandeur and solace all convincingly woven. The marshalling of the chorus, too, was very satisfying.

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