Janáček's turbulent and disturbing opera of mill workers in Moravia was brought forward to rural Ireland at the end of the First World War in a haunting joint production with Danish National Opera directed by Annilese Miskimmon, its Artistic Director. 

Jenůfa is a torturous tale of a rural community, an extended family, love and – to hide the shame of an illegitimate birth – the cold-blooded murder of an eight day old baby. After all the heart wrenching drama, there is a final scene where Jenůfa and Laca sing about their future. It is a big ending and a glorious moment full of swooping key changes and usually played as a happy reconciliation, but Laca is a violent man, unhealthily obsessed by Jenůfa. In this intriguing and powerful reading Miskimmon does not let them get off so lightly.

Kathryn Harries (Kostelnička), Lee Bisset (Jenůfa) and Peter Wedd (Laca) © James Glossop
Kathryn Harries (Kostelnička), Lee Bisset (Jenůfa) and Peter Wedd (Laca)
© James Glossop

From the insistent xylophone's mill wheel soundscape, we were drawn into Grandmother Buryjovká's family, all set outside a full scale model of a whitewashed Irish cottage in Act I, which opened out like a doll's house to a homely interior complete with dresser and a set of copper pans in a clever design by Nicky Shaw. The sideways aspect of the set underlined the claustrophobic community, allowing conversations to be overheard round gable end corners, by people hanging out of windows, and provided space for crowds of villagers to wheel right round the house and squeeze into the tight space outside. Indeed, the chorus provided powerful and thrilling singing in Czech, first as high spirited revellers heaved a battered piano out of the house to sing lusty songs and then as a community outraged by events. Lloyd-Jones' movement was a key feature of this production, with many individual vignettes to enjoy.

In the pit, Stuart Stratford drew passionate and exciting sounds from the players, allowing the colour and individuality to burst through this wonderful score. It is a big sound, and Scottish Opera had a cast of strong soloists who generally had the volume to carry across it. What was outstanding was the ensemble of the main characters whose tangled lives we explore. Anne-Marie Owens as the Grandmother was in strong voice, bustling about trying to control the family, Sam Furness a wonderfully slippery Števa, father of Jenůfa's child, but taking the honours were Lee Bisset's desperate Jenůfa and Peter Wedd's Laca who gave astonishing performances.

Kathryn Harries (Kostelnička) © James Glossop
Kathryn Harries (Kostelnička)
© James Glossop

It is Jenůfa's stepmother, the Kostelnička who drives the opera. Kathryn Harries was somewhat underpowered compared to the rest of the cast in Act I, but grew in stature and menace as she secretly hid Jenůfa during her confinement, and then stole her baby away to kill it, as she saw it, to avoid scandal and allow Jenůfa a new start. Miskimmon blurred the good and bad as the relationship between the two women see-sawed, but the moment where the Kostelnička is suddenly stricken by what she has done at the end of the second act is etched on the memory as she slammed the bottom drawer, used as the baby's crib, back into its chest, one of so many details which stood out in this evening to remember.

The discovery of a baby's body under the melting ice is shocking enough, and Miskimmon ensures that the news destroys the community including the relationship between Steva and the Mayor's daughter Karolka whom he planned to marry. But as Jenůfa and Laca sing of better days and he offers her a cup of tea, she takes his hand and places it on her cheek – the cheek Laca scarred deliberately and violently to kindle enmity between her and Števa. A reminder of the poisonous quarrel between half-brothers and bitter final twist to a fine dramatic evening.