Near-as-dammit-ideal singing combined with masterly baton work from Simon Rattle have given the Staatsoper Berlin a Jenůfa to sear the soul. No musical shortfalls trouble the ear as Janáček’s lyric drama, merciless yet transcendent in its embrace of forgiveness, unfolds like a small miracle. The performance is only compromised by its visual aspect, a staging by Damiano Michieletto that’s disappointingly simplistic in conception and execution.

Camilla Nylund (Jenůfa) and Evelyn Herlitzius (Kostelnička)
© Bernd Uhlig

Symbolism is well and good when there’s some elegance about it and when the audience is invited to reflect on ideas rather than slurp from the director’s ladle. Alas, the final act of this Jenůfa rejoices in a triple whammy of over-eggings when our heroine’s stepmother, the oh so guilty Kostelnička whose murder of an inconvenient baby becomes public knowledge, is shamed first by the attack of a giant iceberg that descends from above and bears over her like the weight of the world, then the pathetic fallacy of meltwater that pours like rain to dampen her body and spirit, and finally – inevitably, perhaps – a hole in the ground that opens to swallow her up. Subtle it isn’t.

From the outset Michieletto’s production, housed as it is in one of those Perspex light boxes that were briefly in vogue last century, resembles an expensive drama workshop. We are first greeted by the stale image of our heroine standing anxiously centre stage while an ensemble of antagonists ambles around her, looking daggers. As for inspiration, the gifted Italian offers little of interest here except some energised antics with a block of ice. No, it’s the marvellous performances that make this such a moving Jenůfa.

Stuart Skelton (Laca Klemeň), Evelyn Herlitzius (Kostelnička) and Camilla Nylund (Jenůfa)
© Bernd Uhlig

Camilla Nylund invests the title character with sufficient backbone to make her late lurch into nobility less jarring than it sometimes is, and in the central act she delivers her nine-minute soliloquy “Mamičko, mám těžkou hlavu” (Mother, I have such a headache) with a welling dread that makes the hairs bristle. Slavic repertoire sits well for the Finnish diva – she is also a seasoned Rusalka – and vocally as well as theatrically she dominates the drama. Evelyn Herlitzius, meanwhile, emotionally heartless and vocally ruthless as the Kostelnička, is a baleful presence in a severe suit: a killer with a crucifix brooch that proclaims her hypocrisy when she imprisons the pregnant Jenůfa in order to save her own reputation.

Jan Martiník (Stárek) and Stuart Skelton (Laca Klemeň)
© Bernd Uhlig

If the vocal contrast between the two female protagonists is startling, so is that between the flawed pair of suitors who vie for the younger woman’s affections. Stuart Skelton’s Laca, a shlubby, troubled man in a Peter Grimes jumper, harbours a jealousy that’s out of control; and no one portrays men on the edge better than the great Australian. He may project the illusion of a desperate soul about to crack up but the tenor is in total command of his instrument as he takes it to hell and back. Instead it is the ringing timbre of Ladislav Elgr as Števa, sharp as a blade and guardian of the first block of ice, that crumbles as he declines from cool sexpot to snivelling drip across the acts. Elgr’s body language (and Michieletto deserves due credit for this) embodies the encroaching feebleness within a man who’s happy to impregnate but terrified to procreate.

Camilla Nylund (Jenůfa) and Ladislav Elgr (Števa Buryja)
© Bernd Uhlig

Rattle fields a company that spills beyond the stage and pit to fill the Staatsoper auditorium with a socially distanced throng, several orchestral desks as well as the resonantly evocative chorus, yet the sound coheres as effectively as if they were all huddled together. Britain’s newest expat resists any temptation to indulge the melody in the Act 3 wedding dance and it is all the more effective for it. Indeed, as with his recent recording of The Cunning Little Vixen Rattle reveals a dynamic understanding of Janáček’s musical language in a reading that’s urgent, unsentimental and richly flavoured.

This performance was reviewed from the 3Sat video stream