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Janacek - Jenufa


English National Opera
at The Coliseum, London
12 October 2006

 

Conductor Mikhail Agrest
Director David Alden
Set Designer Charles Edwards

Costume Designer Jon Morrell

 

Grandmother Buryja Susan Gorton

Kostelnicka Buryja Catherine Malfitano

Jenufa Amanda Roocroft

Laca Klemen Stuart Skelton

Steva Buryja Paul Charles Clarke

Foreman - Iain Patterson

Jano Elizabeth Cragg

Mayor Russell Smythe

Mayor's Wife Sarah Pring

Karolka Lee Bisset

 

This was one of these magic occasions when all the complex elements that are involved in staging an opera fell into place in complete harmony. Jenufa is a story of small town life, with characters who outwardly go about their daily lives with predictable routine. It is hidden emotional turmoil that is the lynchpin to the tragedy which reshapes all the central protagonists into near opposites.

 

David Alden's production together with Charles Edwards's sets and Jon Morrell's costumes capture the atmosphere with complete authenticity. Act 1 takes place in a run down factory, an anonymous empty space which in more prosperous times have been occupied by machinery or goods. Grandmother Buryja (Susan Gorton) on duty at the pass-gate looks as though she had 40 years service under her belt and knew the workings of the place better than anyone, Laca as the lone worker, builds up anger as he struggles with out of date equipment.

 

Jenufa, despite her initial worry that her lover Steva will be drafted, is the one ray of hope with her bright smile and sky blue frock. The boisterous crowd who gather around to sing a traditional dance tune (I was reminded of my days in an East End factory where I'm forever blowing bubbles was obligatory on any collective occasion). Step-mother Kostelnika's disapproval of Steva's drunkenness and Laca's violent outburst reveal the first cracks in the emotional veneer.

 

At just that crucial moment Janacek found himself absorbed by other work, and about eight years elapsed before he was able to pick up the threads of his opera. So not only has the plot darkened as we move into Act 2 but also we have a composer whose emotional language has matured and sharpened. In this production the emotional imagery is sharp indeed. The front of the stage cuts diagonally across an almost empty room, whose windows have been boarded up. Centre back is a door admitting just a crack of light. Jenufa and Kostelnika are sitting hunched and withdrawn in opposite corners, as far apart from each other as they can get. From time to time each casts a furtive glance towards the door that leads the room where the child is concealed - the claustrophobic tension is almost overwhelming.

 

Catherine Malfitano (Kostelnika) and Amanda Roocroft (Jenufa) gave firm proof that they are formidable actresses as well fine singers. As Jenufa sinks into apathy and seems to lose touch with the situation, Kostelnika is driven to desperation and the murder of the child.

 

Act 3 shifts the mood by to celebratory and the marriage of Steva to the mayor's daughter with all the petty snobbery of such an occasion (bitingly effective portrayals from Russell Smythe and Sarah Pring as the mayoral couple). Suddenly the mood changes as the frozen body of the child is found, the mob rushes in tearing open the windows. As Kostelinka confesses and is taken away, the once maverick Laca (Stuart Skelton) stands by Jenufa with dignified loyalty, and a splendidly clear tenor voice.

 

Mikhail Agrest's conducting brought out all the subtlety in the score and the orchestra responded with enthusiasm a musical and dramatic treat.

 

Serena Fenwick

 

See also Alexa Woolf on Jenufa at Glyndebourne with Amanda Roocroft.