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Reviewing 'Jenůfa' at the English National Opera

★★★★

‘You only sinned out of love, as I sinned out of love’ sings Jenůfa, in the remarkable statement of forgiveness and hope which closes this dismal domestic drama of shame, betrayal, and violence.

'Jenůfa' at the English National Opera. Photo by Ellie Kurttz.

David Alden’s revived production transposes the drama from a rural Moravian village into a dreary twentieth-century industrial estate in the Eastern Bloc, the jangling of the millwheel in the xylophone becoming a factory bell portending Jenůfa’s fate. Although Janaček’s folk-inflected score is deeply rooted in its time and place, this restaging is convincing nonetheless in its depiction of family and small-community strife.


Janáček’s aspiration to reflect the character of natural speech in his melodies is perhaps somewhat lost in translation, however. Unlike in his direction of Peter Grimes, revived earlier this season at the English National Opera, Alden retains the austere realism which gives this portrayal of a small, claustrophobic, closed-minded community its emotional potency. Only as the crowd bursts into Kostelnička’s home at the denouement, is this realism suspended, the walls opening out as the family’s secrets are exposed to prying eyes and public judgement.

'Jenůfa' at the English National Opera. Photo by Ellie Kurttz.

Irish soprano Jennifer Davis gives an exceptionally moving performance in the title role, conveying Jenůfa’s emotional turmoil and incredible moral strength in the face of abandonment and betrayal by those closest to her. Susan Bullock was equally excellent as her stepmother, the Kostelnička, sympathetically capturing the love, shame, and desperation which drives her as well as her steely exterior, particularly in her powerful entreaty to Števa in the second act.


Undoubtedly, the women are at the musical and emotional centre of this opera, but John Findon was suitably slimy as the good-for-nothing Števa, and American tenor Richard Trey Smagur made a striking UK debut in his effort to portray the complexities of the loyal, but violent Laca. Conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson sensitively brings out the colourful details of Janaček’s orchestration, and the gradual acceleration of the drama into the heart-wrenching scenes of Acts II and III.



 

 Edited by Georgia Gibson, Theatre Editor.


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