Longborough's programme, quite accurately, describes Janáček's Slavic weepathon Jenůfa as "an unsentimental tale of infanticide... and redemption". Among the many operas in the canon thrumming with drama and violence, Jenůfa remains notably dark, shocking in its bleak brutality, barely relieved by a final discovery of true love which only comes to the shattered characters at an appalling price. Consequently, Jenůfa presents a real challenge for directors, because if the tension drops for even a few seconds on stage, this opera can become woeful in more ways than one. Happily, director and designer Richard Studer's fiercely intense production for Longborough never lets the red thread of agony slacken, from the painfully poignant opening to its tragic, transcendent conclusion.
Studer's set, a simple arrangement of wooden platforms set at a slight slant, with only the occasional thin pole of white birch to suggest a door frame or beam, leaves his characters nowhere to hide: the thematically crucial feeling of social paranoia, and constant fear of being exposed in your thoughts and actions, haunts proceedings from the start. Late Victorian or Edwardian costumes place the production not far from the opera's actual 1904 première, in a muted palette of blues, greys, browns and soft, dirty whites. The stage is dominated by a huge mill wheel at the back, while a few small props (a tray of drinks, a rickety chair, basins of potatoes and peas, a cot) allow for naturalistic action: and the quality of acting, from the entire company, is astonishing, making the evening feel much like a searing piece of Ibsen which just happens to have been set to extraordinary music. Indeed, as each character descends further into their own spiral of despair and mistaken hopes, the interchanges begin to feel increasingly like Ibsen: no one quite answers anyone else's questions, speaking aloud more to persuade themselves.
Lee Bisset's Jenůfa is beautifully sung and hugely affecting, a woman poised at the edge of happiness which is steadily and inexorably poisoned, like her precious pot of rosemary, by the warring passions of her cousins Laca and Števa. Bisset portrays Jenůfa as a girl with wonderful potential who inspires those around her – including the chorus, and Elizabeth Karani's joyfully overexcited Jano, the shepherd boy Jenůfa has taught to read – but ultimately cannot escape the tawdry misery of her village, much the fury of her magnificent mother Kostelnička (Gaynor Keeble). Bisset's final emergence into the compassionate moral maturity which Jenůfa discovers beyond her ordeal is utterly humbling. As Jenůfa moves towards tragic enlightenment, Keeble's electrifying Kostelnička sinks into madness, cut off from God and man alike: I found it impossible not to cry at Kostelnička's dreadful confession, as well as Jenůfa's extraordinary moment of forgiveness. The deeply complicated relationships of mother and child are replicated and refracted in various different ways across the opera, and Keeble's ability to convey maternal pride and maternal frustration is unparalleled. Chilling and powerful, Keeble's Kostelnička is an intense portrait of a woman profoundly scarred by her own experiences of life, and rendered savage by them as she fights the world to defend her own stepdaughter, only to become the architect of her downfall.
Daniel Norman's brilliantly clear and pathos-driven Laca invites us onto Laca's own journey through love, a painfully open and honest character who miraculously chooses his passion for Jenůfa over social stigma, but too late. The irony that Laca is the only man to physically injure Jenůfa, despite his adoration of her, becomes more and more pointed: even with his knife, Laca cannot hurt Jenůfa as much as her professed lover does. Andrew Rees' lounging, wheedling Števa is as thoroughly despicable as Janáček intended, sung with skill and played with a shifting spinelessness which suits the emotional child-man perfectly. Števa summarises everything that women suspect, and find loathsome, about men: selfish, exploitative, arrogant and unrepentant, he runs away from love as soon as it becomes anything more than fun, one of opera's most evil figures.
Maria Jagusz is a convincing and compelling Grandmother Buryja, maintaining a strong grip on her household with weakening fingers. Nazan Fikret is well cast as the Mayor's smug daughter Karolka, so confident in her soon-to-be shattered dreams of married bliss with the reprehensible Števa. Piotr Lempa's Mayor has a nice sense of bourgeois outrage. Mark Saberton exudes strength as Stárek, the mill foreman.
With insistent bells, alarms and thundering explosions from the orchestra ratcheting up the tension at the start of every scene, conductor Jonathan Lyness has much to keep him busy, and his orchestra sound vivid, accurate and lyrical throughout. Janáček employs an incredible range of techniques: some of it feels like Britten, some of it feels like Wagner, and the whole makes a unique sound: Jenůfa unfurls with power, pain and purity.
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