One of the essences of tragedy is to watch a sequence of preventable events, in the knowledge that each of these is a step on the path to disaster. In the case of Janáček's Jenůfa, the sequence of steps – firstly from Jenůfa herself, then from the horrible Števa, then from her stepmother, then from both Jenůfa and her rejected lover Laca – is so painful as to be almost unbearable, were it not wrapped in the dark beauty of Janáček's music.

Ivan Kusnjer (Stárek), Jitka Zerhauová (Grandmother Buryjovka) and Jaroslav Březina (Laca) © Janáčkova opera NdB / Marek Olbrzymek
Ivan Kusnjer (Stárek), Jitka Zerhauová (Grandmother Buryjovka) and Jaroslav Březina (Laca)
© Janáčkova opera NdB / Marek Olbrzymek
For National Theatre Brno, director Martin Glaser gets excellent acting performances from all of his cast, paying meticulous attention to the details of the strained personal relationships. Just as Laca’s prying eyes are always cast on Jenůfa, Stárek’s prying eyes watch Laca. The Kostelnička may be the most genuinely moral person in the opera, but her stiff propriety makes her disliked by everyone – even her beloved stepdaughter – and when she is revealed as a murderess, the villagers are swift and vicious in turning on her.
Pavla Vykopalová (Jenůfa) © Janáčkova opera NdB / Marek Olbrzymek
Pavla Vykopalová (Jenůfa)
© Janáčkova opera NdB / Marek Olbrzymek

The mill of Act I is set by designer Pavel Borák as a cider mill, with apples everywhere: in baskets, on tables, scattered on the ground, with vaguely folkloric clothing. Particularly at this autumnal time, it makes for a deceptively lovely setting (the apples are real) with which to contrast the nastiness of the people involved; it also lends a pang of irony to Števa’s compliment that “your cheeks are like rosy apples” moments before one of those cheeks is slashed. Act II switches to a conceptual view, with no lightness to set against the pessimism. The set consists of multiple identical copies of an austere, functional room with table, chair, crucifix and icon: the various characters inhabit the different copies, showing that they are in the same space but with an emotional gulf between each other. Bright folkloric costumes return for the third act wedding scene, dissolving to a final fade-to-black in which only the protagonists’ faces are lit.

As they should, top vocal honours go to Pavla Vykopalová in the title role. Hers may not be a giant voice, but her high notes are of bewitching sweetness; it’s a voice you could listen to for hours, and the opera’s closing passage, in which Jenůfa finally realises the value of Laca’s love, was wonderfully uplifting. Jaroslav Březina sang Laca with authority, passion and good characterisation: his voice didn’t display an intrinsically warm timbre, but the warmth of expression was certainly there.

Pavla Vykopalová (Jenůfa) and Jaroslav Březina (Laca) © Janáčkova opera NdB / Marek Olbrzymek
Pavla Vykopalová (Jenůfa) and Jaroslav Březina (Laca)
© Janáčkova opera NdB / Marek Olbrzymek

Szilvia Rálik dominated proceedings from the first moment of her impressive entrance as the Kostelnička. Her voice has both velvet and steel and she was able to switch between both in Act II where she veers from private fury with Števa to the need to bury her pride and placate him. Crisis moments were expertly handled, such as “Ty plačeš” (You’re weeping) almost murmured to Števa at the point where the sheer loveliness of the singing has deceived you into thinking that her pleas cannot possibly go unheeded. Tomáš Juhás impersonated the self-satisfied braggart to loathsome effect, literally throwing money around. Amongst the smaller roles, Ivan Kusnjer impressed with a hard-edged baritone as the mill foreman Stárek.

Szilvia Ralík (Kostelnička) © Janáčkova opera NdB / Marek Olbrzymek
Szilvia Ralík (Kostelnička)
© Janáčkova opera NdB / Marek Olbrzymek
Marko Ivanović balanced the orchestra to perfection. The music was never in your face, never claiming precedence over the singers, always subservient to the drama. It took effort to wrest my attention away from the events unfolding on stage to listen to the orchestral sound in detail, but when I did so, I realised that every phrase was perfectly weighted, every instrument making its proper contribution. As Jenůfa awoke from her drugged sleep to find stepmother and baby gone, the string sound was of melting softness; at the other end of the expressive scale, folk dances bounced and charmed.

The main reason for my coming to Brno, Janáček's home, to the theatre and festival that bear his name, was to hear this music performed by singers and musicians who have it in their blood: that hope could not have been more fully satisfied.