It takes an especially brave dramatist to write a play about a child murder whose moral heroine is the murderer. It takes an exceptional composer to turn this into an opera so potent that we are in total sympathy with the murderer. And it takes a great production to bring this together so strongly that every member of the audience was quaking in their seat.

Laura Wilde (Jenůfa), Nicky Spence (Števa) and ENO Chorus © Donal Cooper
Laura Wilde (Jenůfa), Nicky Spence (Števa) and ENO Chorus
© Donal Cooper
Gabriela Pressová's 1890 play Her Stepdaughter is an exceptional piece of feminism which turns the blame for the murder squarely on the societal norms which ostracised the mother of an illegitimate child. But it is the genius of Leoš Janáček's score which brings Jenůfa to life. Like Britten, every line of Janáček's score is suffused with beauty – even in the darkest and the most intense moments. And those moments get pretty dark (with a Sibelius-like feel to the opening of the crucial Act II) and impossibly intense. In this second revival of David Alden's 2006 production, Mark Wigglesworth and the ENO Orchestra played out of their skins, not only extracting every ounce of beauty from the music but also every ounce of meaning.

At the crisis point in Act II, the Kostelnička, Jenůfa's severely strict stepmother, caves in and is forced to plead with her stepdaughter's lover Števa not to abandon her with their baby. At that point, her music switches in a heartbeat from crisp severity into overwhelmingly lyrical sweetness. Michaela Martens' voice and the orchestral backing achieved this switch so strongly that every fibre of my being was convinced that Števa could not possibly refuse her – regardless the fact that I knew perfectly well that this isn't so. Števa's refusal was one of the most gut-wrenching moments I can remember in any opera. 

Michaela Martens (Kostelnička) and Nicky Spence (Števa) © Donald Cooper
Michaela Martens (Kostelnička) and Nicky Spence (Števa)
© Donald Cooper
The Kostelnička is the true protagonist of the opera, sacrificing (as she sees it) her own eternity in the hope of a better future for her beloved stepdaughter. Martens gave a compelling performance; a strong voice singing a strong character, the voice collapsing in power and certainty in Act III as the Kostelnička is overwhelmed by her guilt. As Jenůfa, Laura Wilde isn't the finished article, but showed promise. Her straightforward acting and vocal characterisation was believable, the timbre of her soprano is basically attractive and her diction was excellent, but she was a shade underpowered and not quite throwing herself into the role. I expect her to improve steadily from here.

No such issue, however, with the two male leads. Nicky Spence was larger than life, both in voice and in manner, as the swaggering, leering Števa, with plenty of power and bluster, but still able to work his way around the smooth contours of Janáček's writing. Peter Hoare was simply heartbreaking as Laca, another singer able to shift his voice in mood and tone while sounding well phrased and lyrical at all times. Hoare also proved himself versatile in acting, credible both when he is coarse and almost casually violent in Act I, distraught in Act II and the incarnation of nobility in Act III.

Peter Hoare (Laca) and Laura Wilde (Jenůfa) © Donald Cooper
Peter Hoare (Laca) and Laura Wilde (Jenůfa)
© Donald Cooper
David Alden's direction is most notable for his getting very strong acting performances from every one of his singers and for his mastery of the claustrophobic attitudes of the Moravian village. Even the minor characters play their part: by the time we get to Act III, everyone is in desperate need of some comic relief (I yearned for an equivalent of the porter in Macbeth) and this was provided splendidly by Natalie Herman's ghastly Mayor's Wife being all but handbagged by Valerie Reid as Grandmother Buryja (admittedly, somewhat too sprightly on her pins). Charles Edwards sets are drab and use very few props (baby clothes, Jenůfa's rosemary plant and the Kostelnička's niche with its Virgin Mary are just about it for Act II): interest is provided by clever use of exaggerated perspective and some interesting lighting effects.

The hour long Act I of this Jenůfa flew past faster than any opera I can remember. Act II put me through the emotional wringer, and the happy-in-part ending of Act III just about achieved some redemption at the end of a long journey. And all three left me marvelling at Janáček's music. Unmissable.

*****