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Amanda Roocroft as Jenufa and Tom Randle as Steva Buryja [Photo by Robert Workman courtesy of English National Opera]
25 Mar 2009

Jenůfa — English National Opera, London Coliseum

Janáček enthusiasts in London have been spoiled this month: opening the day before English Touring Opera’s Katya Kabanova, David Alden’s staging of Jenůfa made a welcome return to the Coliseum following its original double Olivier Award-winning run in 2006.

Leoš Janáček: Jenůfa

Amanda Roocroft, Michaela Martens, Robert Brubaker, Tom Randle, Susan Gorton, Iain Paterson, Mairead Buicke. English National Opera. Eivind Gullberg Jensen, conductor. David Alden, director.

Above: Amanda Roocroft as Jenufa and Tom Randle as Steva Buryja

All photos by Robert Workman courtesy of English National Opera


One of the awards on that occasion was for Amanda Roocroft’s assumption of the title role, and it was thus a luxury to have her back here for the revival, heading a cast which was otherwise largely new. Clad neatly in bright blue, this sunny golden-haired Jenůfa is, from the outset, a contrast both with Charles Edwards’s Act 1 set, dominated by an ugly grey workshop against a pale sky, and with the gaudy immodesty of Števa’s hangers-on. Such is the impression made by her initial good cheer that it is all too painful to follow the effect of the series of personal tragedies that befall her. One would never think at the outset that this was a girl who would end up getting married in a plain black dress (against which her dead child’s red knitted cap is thrown into particularly poignant relief).

Roocroft’s singing, too, is full of light at the outset, but by the final curtain has given way to a measured, introverted luminosity. And in between — well, after hearing of the death of baby Števuška her voice is as drained and forlorn as the drab wallpaper in the Kostelnička’s living-room. She had a strong partner in the Norwegian conductor Elvind Gullberg Jensen — in his ENO debut — who showed unfailing sensitivity in these moments of personal reflection, even if he had a tendency to lose the shape of the music in the bigger, public scenes.

Jenůfa’s initial sunniness presents just as sharp a contrast with the Kostelnička, sung by the American mezzo Michaela Martens; though her singing was powerful and at times gut-wrenchingly intense, barely a word of the English translation (by Otakar Kraus and Edward Downes) was decipherable, and her tone had a tendency to spread out at the height of the second-act monologue. This production makes her rather severe; it is a shame we didn’t see more of the internal struggle with her own human nature as the realisation dawns that only she has the means to dispose of Jenůfa’s ‘problem’.

Robert Brubaker’s Laca is quite outstanding, so alive with repressed anger and frustration that he seldom even stands still. There was a wildness to some of the louder moments which concerned me slightly at the time, but which in hindsight I’m convinced must have been an intentional part of his characterisation; in the final moments of Act 3, his passionate declaration of love for Jenůfa was delivered in a full-blooded, secure, radiant fortissimo — and with both feet firmly on the ground. Thomas Randle was equally ideal as the irresponsible Števa, looking every inch the alpha male, his bright, cocksure tenor making every note count.

Jenufa_008.gifTom Randle as Steva Buryja and Mairead Buicke as Karolka

Iain Paterson (the only survivor other than Roocroft of the original 2006 run) was quite outstanding as the Foreman, every word delivered with precision and sensitivity — and Susan Gorton made much of Grandma Buryjovka, her wordless but telling reaction to the crass insensitivity of Karolka and family supplying a rare but welcome moment of comic relief in Act 3.

David Alden’s staging has a few incongruous details; neither the motorcycle on which Števa makes his first entrance, nor the colourfully-clad village girls who dance for Jenufa prior to her wedding, seem appropriate to the time and place. And the production bothered me more second time around than it did when new. In the dreary surroundings of a small industrial plant in the 1940s or thereabouts, the insistent staccato of the opening orchestral theme is accompanied by flashes of light from welding tools rather than the turning of a mill-wheel. The indoor setting of the second and third acts is no more attractive, with slabs of old cardboard keeping out the world in the place of closed shutters. Is the sadness, frustration and violence in these people’s lives an inevitable result of miserable surroundings, and not a product of their personal circumstances? It’s a valid interpretation, if not one that makes for visually striking stage pictures.

Ruth Elleson © 2009

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