South African-British composer John Joubert, now in his 89th year, is one of the last of a generation of great traditionalists whose music has attracted a recent resurgence of interest. One of those keen to champion Joubert's music is conductor Kenneth Woods who directed the English Symphony Orchestra in the first full concert version of Joubert's opera setting of Charlotte Brontë's masterpiece, Jane Eyre. The last of Joubert's seven operas and considered to be his magnum opus, Jane Eyre was completed in 1997 after many years' gestation. The occasion of its première, though long in the making, was celebrated in timely fashion, marking 200 years since Charlotte Brontë's birth, as well as anticipating Joubert's 90th birthday in 2017.

April Fredrick © Pierre Joubert
April Fredrick
© Pierre Joubert
Joubert's music has frequently drawn on great works of literature, and the choice of Jane Eyre as an operatic subject perfectly suited his wont as a composer to explore the human condition "in line with the Enlightenment idea of theatre as a 'School of Morals'" – an ethos of which Brontë herself would have approved. Woods describes the opera as "a score of translucent beauty, in which the music is not only worthy of the original text but seems absolutely of and from it". Indeed, the wonderfully affinitive word-setting lends a great emotional potency to Brontë's epic drama; the use of speech inflections in the vocal lines, the rhythmic stresses, the musical motifs of the characters: all are meticulously crafted, compellingly drawing the listener in to the progressive psychology of the musical narrative.

Joubert's style is essentially one of diatonic lyricism, but the score's vividly colourful and lush palette made powerful use of syncopation and dissonance in evoking atmospheres of tension and portent as well as illuminating the dichotomies within Brontë's characters, notably in the depiction of the conflicted Jane, through wide leaps and use of the leitmotif 7th in her soprano line. April Fredrick navigated the angularity of the title role with steel in an astonishing and luminous performance; a more impassioned embodiment of the character was hard to imagine. Baritone David Stout was assured, effective and suitably brooding as Rochester, but his performance made far fewer concessions to visual dramatic gesture than Fredrick's; not so much a shortcoming in itself, though it raised the question of the exigencies and constraints of a 'half-staged' concert setting. The dramatic potential of a full operatic production for one of the great romantic liaisons in literary fiction, consummated through music of such power and integrity, seemed an ever-prescient notion.

David Stout © Pierre Joubert
David Stout
© Pierre Joubert

Librettist Kenneth Birkin, in collaboration with the composer, faced tough choices in paring down the text to fit the revised two-act format. The result, though uneven, is a viable retelling of the tale which loses little of the drama of Jane's odyssey. The decision, for instance, to telescope Jane's early period in order to retain the emotionally pivotal episode of St John Rivers (often missing from screen adaptations of the novel) felt absolutely right and St John's substantial tenor part, sung by a charismatic Mark Milhofer, added richly to the musical balance of the piece.

The support from cast members, notably Lesley-Jane Rogers and Clare McCaldin, was exemplary and the orchestra, under the astute direction of Woods, and in the warm and immediate acoustic of Birmingham's Ruddock Hall, sounded polished and vibrant. In the presence of the composer, there was added poignancy in the standing ovation, and a feeling that something of real value had taken place: an important contribution to the repertoire, deserving of a place on the world opera stage.