At the end of Jenůfa, as our tainted heroine and her faithful husband-to-be Laca ride (metaphorically) into the sunset, Janáček unleashes music of extraordinary radiance. And never have I heard it so passionate and uplifting as in last night’s performance by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House under Henrik Nánási. And quite frankly, we needed a bit of uplifting after two hours of gut-wrenching drama in which director Claus Guth and a magnificent cast drew out every inch of tension and emotion of which this opera is capable.

Asmik Grigorian (Jenůfa)
© ROH | Monika Rittershaus

It’s an ending that’s happy, but not for everyone. Although not the title role, the key tragic figure in the opera – and by far the most interesting and multi-faceted character – is Jenůfa’s unnamed stepmother, known only by her position in society: the Kostelnička (widow of the churchwarden). Her status in the rigid village society may now be a high one, but she has a turbulent, abused past and she is desperate to avoid her stepdaughter falling into the same trap. Karita Mattila turns in an electrifying performance as her doomed effort to protect Jenůfa spirals out of control, eventually resorting to infanticide as the only way out in spite of her deep Christian and moral beliefs. You can’t take your eyes off Mattila from the moment she walks on stage, and your ears are similarly rewarded by her purity of tone, clarity of diction and perfect feel for the flow of Janáček’s music. It’s another performance to add to the list of Mattila masterclasses.

Karita Mattila (Kostelnička)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

But this was by no means a one woman show, with every cast member acting their part in a way that convinced completely. The title role is less complex – it’s an exploration of how a woman can survive being seen as damaged goods – but Asmik Grigorian played it completely believably and made the most of the role’s many musical opportunities. Her prayer for her child’s future in Act 2 was a highlight, and the blending of voices in her duet with Mattila was heart-melting. Saimir Pirgu alternated between swagger and pathetic weakness as Jenůfa’s feckless fiancé, Števa, Nicky Spence was dependable and earnest as Laca, David Stout was an imposing foreman and Elena Zilio turned in a brilliant cameo as the grandmother who, in a sense, is the guilty party of the whole thing by having spoilt Števa fearfully in his upbringing.

Nicky Spence (Laca), Asmik Grigorian (Jenůfa) and Saimir Pirgu (Števa)
© ROH | Ivor Kerslake

Guth overlays the action with a fair dose of symbolism, but without departing from the action and setting as defined in the libretto. Michael Levine’s sets are closer to symbolic than realistic. Sprung iron beds (the indolence of the village men?) surround the women working in Števa’s mill, then turn into the walls of Jenůfa’s and the Kostelnička’s room in Act 2. The mattresses become the ice of the river into which Jenůfa’s baby will be drowned. Things loosen up in Act 3 as the previously monochrome stage becomes a blaze of Bohemian colour for Jenůfa and Laca’s wedding party. Guth permits himself a small number of staging items that are purely symbolic and all of them are telling. As the Kostelnička tells her back story, Guth sets the scene brilliantly by bringing on the figure of her abusive late husband, presenting him as an alter ego of Jenůfa’s fiancé Števa. In Act 2, a bloodied child crosses the stage, and a giant raven hovers menacingly above the house, portending doom.

David Stout (Stárek) and Karita Mattila (Kostelnička)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Janáček’s music is constantly in motion, often suffused with lyrical beauty, brimming with ideas, themes and variety of orchestration and tightly bound up with whatever text is being spoken. Nánási brings out all the orchestral colours – although a little more restraint would have helped in Act 1, in which the singers were sometimes swamped.

All this dramatic quality and musical beauty should by rights have turned Jenůfa into a box office hit to rival Verdi or Wagner, but it has never done so; this is its first performance at The Royal Opera in 20 years. Perhaps that’s because the drama is so intense as to be painful. We needed the two intervals for the heart rate to recover. Or perhaps it’s because the sheer number of Janáček’s musical ideas is difficult to grasp. To paraphrase Guth’s explanation in the programme, where Verdi might have developed an attractive theme into a whole aria or Wagner into a whole opera, Janáček simply uses it and moves on to the next one. But don’t let those things deter you. This production delivers a magnificent evening of music drama and deserves to run and run.

*****