Twenty years after she directed Jenůfa for Welsh National Opera, Katie Mitchell presents her second, renewed vision of Janáček’s masterpiece at Dutch National Opera. Hers is a very straightforward approach to the libretto that, supported by a team of excellent singing actors, proves very effective. At the première, Czech conductor Tomáš Netopil led the Netherlands Philarmonic Orchestra in an admirably detailed reading of the score, more light-footed than most and with beautiful transparencies of textures, but with staggering swells in crucial dramatic moments. All came together for a dramatically engrossing, moving performance.

Evelyn Herlitzius (Kostelnička) and Annette Dasch (Jenůfa) © Ruth Walz
Evelyn Herlitzius (Kostelnička) and Annette Dasch (Jenůfa)
© Ruth Walz

Leoš Janáček’s opera addresses with stark realism the topics of social control, unwanted pregnancy and violence against women. These are themes that appeal to Katie Mitchell in her self-declared mission to bring more female perception and experience to the stage. The libretto is based on a play by female author Gabriela Preissová. The original Czech title of the opera, before it was simplified to Jenůfa for foreign audiences, was Její pastorkyňa, which translates roughly as Her stepdaughter and captures the narrative much better becauase, central to the story is the relationship between Jenůfa and her stepmother, the Kostelnička. The Kostelnička has raised Jenůfa very strictly, giving her an education in the hope that she will escape her own unhappy fate. This ambition is ruined when Jenůfa becomes pregnant by the dashing but unreliable Števa. Jenůfa’s hopes of marrying Števa founder when he abandons her after she is disfigured by Laca, Števa’s half-brother, who is himself in love with her, in a moment of jealous rage. Jenůfa’s baby is born in secrecy but, attempting to rescue the situation by marrying off Jenůfa to Laca, the Kostelnička drowns the infant in the river. The little corpse is discovered on the wedding day and, as the mob turns against Jenůfa, about to take justice into their own hands, the Kostelnička confesses her crime. Jenůfa forgives her and sets off into her new life as Laca’s wife.

<i>Jenůfa</i> at DNO © Ruth Walz
Jenůfa at DNO
© Ruth Walz

The libretto of this dark family drama is so gripping that Mitchell does not feel the need to alter the storyline. She simply moves the action to the present day and substitutes the closed folk of a Moravian village with the just-as-suffocating community of a modern day trailer park. Lizzie Clachan's sets have the unromantic ugliness of a telenovela: a cross-section of a factory’s office, complete with attached cafeteria and washroom in the first act, followed by cross sections of Kostelnička and Jenůfa’s caravans in the following two. This family story is the stuff of soap opera at its best.

Crowd scenes are expertly choreographed. The arrival of Števa and his inebriated company at the factory turns into your worst office party nightmare (an occasion for DNO's chorus to shine) and the discovery of the baby’s body is a startling dramatic moment. There is however perhaps even more to admire in the meticulous way each protagonist worked on re-enacting everyday gestures in a true-to-life manner, like the pregnant Jenůfa being sick in the toilets or her impeded walk after giving birth.

This approach was supported by a strong cast of singers, all showing superb acting ability. Amongst the smaller roles, there are some particularly fine contributions by Henry Waddington as a resonant foreman Stárek, Karin Strobos as the credulous Karolka and Sophia Borgos, as the young Jana (who, breaking with convention, is here a girl whom Jenůfa teaches to read). Veteran Hanna Schwarz, as Grandmother Buryjovka, allied a commanding stage presence to a powerfully projected mezzo. With his handsome bright tenor, Norman  Reinhardt was a fine Števa, acted with a cockiness that made his character almost instantly disagreeable. As his half-brother Laca, Pavel Černoch gave a splendid performance, projecting his darker and beefier tenor effortlessly, and using colour and shading with such skill that he almost had me convinced of the dramatically problematic transition of Laca from a violent bully to a loving husband.

Norman Reinhardt (Števa) and Annette Dasch (Jenůfa) © Ruth Walz
Norman Reinhardt (Števa) and Annette Dasch (Jenůfa)
© Ruth Walz

Using her full-throated lyric instrument, Annette Dasch, making her role debut, was a more strong-willed Jenůfa than some of the ingénues we are sometimes accustomed to, but this certainly did not make her portrayal less moving: her scene in Act 2, when she discovers the disappearance of her baby was gripping. It was, however, Evelyn Herlitzius’ portrayal of the Kostelnička, another role debut, that sent the dramatic seismograph’s needle flying off the dial. Hers isn’t the most beautiful of instruments, but it is an awe-inspiring one with a rich chest register and a top that cuts effortlessly through the orchestra. Combined with her magnetic command of the stage, it made for the most complex and devastating portrayal of the stern infanticidal matriarch.

****1