In Leoš Janáček’s Jenůfa, domestic feuding, brooding jealousy and sudden grief are at the forefront and the key turning point is the murder of a baby by drowning under an iced-up mill stream in a small village. For a journalist, the story would be sensational in a routine sort of way, and the tabloids might pick out the most lurid details. For the composer, it was a narrative which enabled him to colour his music with his own grief (his daughter Olga died just before he completed the work) and to provide an ultimately compassionate view of his fellow human beings, through the events in a village which makes the one in Smetana’s Bartered Bride seem quaintly idyllic. He was also able to indulge his fascination for the rhythms and folk tunes of Moravia.

Opera North's <i>Jenůfa</i> © Richard Hubert Smith
Opera North's Jenůfa
© Richard Hubert Smith

Sorting out Jenůfa’s family relationships requires some thought, and the programme contains a helpful family tree: her father is dead and she is under the wing of her loving stepmother, the Kostelnička. She is pregnant by Števa, but loved passionately by his half-brother Laca, who is so jealous that he slashes her face with a knife on an impulse, disfiguring her. Some lover! Because Števa has no interest in the birth of his baby boy and because Catholic guilt and shame is everywhere like an invisible smog, the stepmother decides that the child must be made to disappear, which would make it easier for Laca to marry her foster-daughter. The wedding is about to take place when the body is discovered during the spring thaw. The entangled characters are seen starkly against a relatively uncluttered set designed by the director, Tom Cairns, geometrical and strangely-angled, which was widely commented upon when Opera North first launched this production in 1995, and in various re-launches since then.

Elizabeth Sikora (Grandmother Buryjovka), Ed Lyon (Števa) and Ylva Kihlberg (Jenůfa) © Richard Hubert Smith
Elizabeth Sikora (Grandmother Buryjovka), Ed Lyon (Števa) and Ylva Kihlberg (Jenůfa)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Janáček’s orchestral music can be really overwhelming as well as captivating, full of swirling emotions and sudden intensities which can distract an audience from the singers, which was particularly significant in Act I, though they put up a good fight underneath a huge lime-green sloping flat with a shadowy water wheel projected on to it. Serbian conductor Aleksandar Marković was probably right in not muting things, which might have had an adverse effect, though the orchestra became slightly irritating at times. Later on it excelled, with well-managed dramatic pauses and agitated strings.

David Butt Philip (Laca Klemeň) and Ylva Kihlberg (Jenůfa) © Richard Hubert Smith
David Butt Philip (Laca Klemeň) and Ylva Kihlberg (Jenůfa)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Swedish soprano Ylva Kihlberg swiftly established herself as a particularly tender, sensitive Jenůfa. She is no stranger to Janáček: she was Emilia Marty in a recent Makropulos Case, and she was entirely convincing here, especially when the plot gathered pace in Act II – her prayer, delivered as she carried a plaster statue of the Virgin, was devastating, and her pathos-imbued singing as she clasped the sodden clothing of her dead child went straight to the heart. Tenor Ed Lyon’s depiction of the crassly insensitive rake Števa was just one step away from that of a pantomime villain (a few people actually booed him at the final curtain when I was in the audience) but I did enjoy his John Cleese-style “silly walk” when he was playing drunk and carrying a bottle of vodka in Act I. David Butt Philip’s powerhouse tenor dominated the stage in the role of Laca, a character to which he brought a fine sense of youthful obsession.

Susan Bickley (The Kostelnička) © Richard Hubert Smith
Susan Bickley (The Kostelnička)
© Richard Hubert Smith

The opera is centred on the Kostelnička, though. She is the character making the crucial decisions, who changes lives. Mezzo Susan Bickley was truly frightening, bloodcurdling even, when she picked up the little bundle of joy and sang about offering him to God for a better life in the care of Christ. Her voice has a lushly mellow quality which can switch effortlessly to the anguished and panic-stricken, for example in Act III, and she was an excellent lynchpin in the finale, as she explained to the threatening villagers that she was the murderer.

The two intervals were longer than usual: the set was heavy and cumbersome to move, but worth the effort: in Act II it was particularly useful and effective, with its sloping floor and crazy-angled sides, like something from a German expressionist film. The close of this act, with its silhouettes and slowed-down movements, was stunning. The use of surtitles for a production in English (translation by Otakar Kraus and Edward Downes) was presumably to help correct the balance with the orchestra, and it stole eyes away from the main stage a little too often, but this is a minor niggle. It was a captivating production.