Grange Park Opera, at West Horsley Place in Surrey, began its 2017 season with Tosca, a tightly constructed piece of intense theatre which our review felt was not entirely done justice by the acting of the production’s principals. No such problems beset its second offering, Janáček’s Jenůfa which positively boils with rural village drama.

Nicky Spence (Števa), Natalya Romaniw (Jenůfa) and GPO Chorus © Robert Workman
Nicky Spence (Števa), Natalya Romaniw (Jenůfa) and GPO Chorus
© Robert Workman

GPO conveniently provided a little family tree in their programme to try to make sense of the tangled plot, in which two half-brothers are rivals for the love of their cousin, Jenůfa, step-daughter of Kostelnička (the church warden’s widow), also the aunt (more or less) of the aforementioned half-brothers. This revival of Katie Mitchell’s 1998 production for Welsh National Opera, here overseen by Robin Tebbutt, banishes the rural world and confines us to the mill and the cottages, the colours drained and faded. An atmosphere of cramped confinement, deliberate or otherwise, is created by the reduced size of the sets; the dance in the first act feels squashed and the villagers virtually hang through the windows glaring accusingly in the third act. There’s a physicality in the interactions between the Kostelnička, Jenůfa and the baby Števuska in the second act – at times almost picture perfect – that is then perverted when, after the crowds disappear to the mill-stream, Jenůfa returns clutching the frozen corpse of her dead child.

Direction was solid, although the chorus in the third act seemed at moments to be a little static. The second act was done particularly well: an uncluttered and austere set drew focus to the armchair from which first Jenůfa and then Števa sing, while behind a black screen, Jenůfa, sleeps and dreams. The postscript to the opera saw a young boy cheerfully amid a field of white flowers and I’m not quite sure how this plays into Mitchell’s reading of the opera. Is he Jenůfa’s new son, or a heavenly vision of the dead Števuska? The former whitewashes her hard-won love with Laca, the latter is overtly sentimental.

Natalya Romaniw (Jenůfa) © Robert Workman
Natalya Romaniw (Jenůfa)
© Robert Workman

It’s always pleasing to encounter a cast without a weak link and the central quartet here was very strong both vocally and dramatically. Natalya Romaniw’s sensitive Jenůfa was sweetly sung; once the top warmed up, she was even across the registers, but her voice really made its mark from the second act, brimming with tenderness and maternal warmth. An absence of strain in the higher register made for some firm top notes in her moving performance in the final act. Susan Bullock is no stranger to Jenůfa, but she has only ever sung the title role; her role debut as the Kostelnička was an obvious success. There was something about the way she carried herself in the first act – a gait suggesting proud, but weary suffering – which was totally convincing, and her voice itself seemed akin to a contemptuous sneer. In the second act, fearless at the top, her voice soared over the orchestra with little apparent effort, and her confession in Act 3 was a tour de force. There was also much to enjoy in her delivery: diction was sharp, almost piquant, and there was always a sense that Bullock was working from the text.

Susan Bullock (Kostelnička) © Robert Workman
Susan Bullock (Kostelnička)
© Robert Workman

The physical mannerisms that Peter Hoare brought to the character of Laca seemed well-honed. In the first act, hunched over and wringing his hands, he suggested seedy frustration and his scarring of Jenůfa was vivid enough to be genuinely frightening, while by the third act there was a lightness to his posture and a mildness to his motions (excluding some bottle-smashing in defence of Jenůfa) which captured the change in Laca’s character. Vocally he was clear-toned and bright at the top: alive to the nuances of the part, he shifted from forceful to soft in an instant. Nicky Spence is an experienced Števa and brought an immediate ugliness to the role; the hard drinking businessman striding round and looking to paw at women, characterised by a muscular voice with a forceful top.

Peter Hoare (Laca) and Natalya Romaniw (Jenůfa) © Robert Workman
Peter Hoare (Laca) and Natalya Romaniw (Jenůfa)
© Robert Workman

Standing out in more minor roles, Anne-Marie Owens was a sympathetic Grandmother and Jihoon Kim brought warm authority to the Mayor. Conductor William Lacey drew passionate and accurate playing from the BBC Concert Orchestra, driving action forward at the appropriate moments without being afraid to show a little languor when needed; not the most Czech reading, but plenty to be said for it.