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ENO, Jenufa (Laura Wilde)
27 Jun 2016

Jenůfa, ENO

The sharp angles and oddly tilting perspectives of Charles Edwards’ set for David Alden’s production of Jenůfa at ENO suggest a community resting precariously on the security and certainty of its customs, soon to slide from this precipice into social and moral anarchy.

Jenůfa, ENO

A review by Claire Seymour

Above image courtesy ENO (c) Donald-Cooper


Adam Silverman’s lighting emphasises this volatility and vulnerability. The flicker of an off-stage neon light permeates Act 1; unsettling chiaroscuro effects destabilise throughout, complementing the abrupt shifts and contrasts of Janáček’s score. The latent violence and the unavoidable tragedy that will ensue are signalled when, at the start of Act 1, the black back-drop slashes open to reveal a glaring white expanse: in this image we may see the sharp edge of Laca’s knife, or perhaps the watery expanse of the river in which the Kostelnička will drown Jenůfa’s child.

Alden re-locates the action of Act 1 from rural, nineteenth-century Moravia to a run-down factory yard on an Eastern European industrial estate, in the fairly recent past. The grey, sparse, corrugated coldness is alienating. We are denied a sense of a community in which ancestral relationships, historic contracts and unsettled grievances continue to exert an influence in the present. But, despite the realism of the play - Gabriela Preissová’s Her Foster-Daughter ­- from which the opera was derived, specificity of time and place is not really so important. Janáček is more concerned with the search for psychological and dramatic truth, and the depiction of character: his opera stresses the human elements of the drama, in contrast to the more candid realism of Preissová’s evocation of village life.

So, fittingly, Alden presents us with a barren world which will nurture nothing. Both landscape and hearts are sterile: Jenůfa’s fragile rosemary plant - representative of her oneness with the natural world - struggles to survive in its pot, placed at the front-centre of the stage, symbolic of the hopes that will stagnate or languish here.

Acts 2 and 3 take us into the Kostelnička’s austere, blanched apartment. The wallpaper is peeling, the tattered shutters hold back the light; the sloping ceiling seems to lour, oppressively stifling the air. Only a Virgin in a shabby niche alleviates the desolation.

The changes that Janáček made to Preissová’s drama when formulating the libretto, push Jenůfa - rather than her step-mother, the sanctimonious sextoness - to centre-stage: it is her spiritual maturation that is at the heart of the opera and which ensures that forgiveness rather than vengeance prevails. In the title role, American soprano Laura Wilde was a revelation. Making her European debut, Wilde sang with a radiant, richly textured soprano and displayed considerable acting skills. Currently in her final year of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Young Artists’ programme, the soprano is undoubtedly one to watch. She demonstrated a full tone and unwavering steadiness at the top - important given that the score lingers in the higher registers.

This was a breathtakingly honest performance; Jenůfa’s openness was utterly credible and her growing maturity compelling. When she insisted that Laca forgive Števa, and when she herself absolved her own step-mother, she was neither superficial nor saintly - just a real woman who has learned that it is suffering that brings moral understanding and certainty. In the closing scenes we may have sensed Jenůfa’s exhaustion - as she tries to persuade Laca to leave her the fragile vocal line fragments - but at the close she was calm and strong, her voice flushed with optimism.

American mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens returned to reprise the role of Kostelnička. In Act 1 she had a tendency to stand motionless, presumably to convey the contemptuous self-righteousness that underpins her authority. This was not ineffective, but we need to know what’s going on inside her mind and soul: to see, from the start, that this is a woman who is capable of killing her step-daughter’s baby. However, in Act 2, the façade dissolved. Martens conveyed the Kostelnička’s chilling censoriousness but also allowed us a glimpse of her humanity: she does not want Jenůfa to suffer as she did, for Števa so resembles his uncle, and her vulnerability was painfully evident when she begged Števa to marry her step-daughter and acknowledge his son.

At first I thought that she seemed a little too young for the role, but Martens used her hard-edged tone and incisive delivery to imbue the vocal lines with unnerving declamatory power. The central act, though less visually and dramatically colourful than the framing acts, was truly the emotional core, and when the Kostelnička carried the child to its death her hysterical quasi-laughter formed a terrible juxtaposition with the kneeling Jenůfa’s quiet prayer to the Virgin.

Jenůfa both unites and divides the two half-brothers: her beauty frustrates Laca but it is also what Števa desires to control. Nicky Spence conveyed all of Števa’s swaggering arrogance - the production doesn’t make clear from whence his wealth comes, but he clearly has both money and luck. But, at the day of reckoning the bold brashness disintegrated to reveal the cad’s essential cowardice and weakness. Spence’s powerful tenor had firmness and directness, and he effortlessly breezed through Janáček’s lyrical melodies.

Peter Hoare was tremendous as Laca, his distasteful violence tempered by undeniable nobility and frailty. Hoare’s tenor was a darker counterpoint to Spence’s, and Laca’s agitation and distress drove the drama forward, just as they warped his essential decency.

Brittle ‘light relief’ was provided by Natalie Herman’s grisly Mayor’s Wife and the spry Grandmother Burya of Valerie Reid who flung out proverbs and clichés as adeptly as she wielded her handbag. Graeme Danby made, in such a small role, a surprisingly strong impression as the Foreman.

Janáček doesn’t give the chorus much to do - the composer removed some ensembles (along with text repetitions) during his 1908 revisions, as they held up the action and were unnaturalistic - but Alden makes their moments tell. When they smash through the windows of the Kostelnička’s apartment in Act 3, literally ripping the walls asunder, we know that we’ve reached breaking point. And, the mill-girls’ song in the same act, whose text treats a mother-daughter relationship and depicts the breaking away from parental domination, established the unity of village’s voice.

Conductor Mark Wigglesworth takes a slow burn approach, and the drama moves unhurriedly but surely to its fervent denouement (the performance lasted 30 minutes longer than the advertised running time). The gradual accumulation of tension is terrible in its inexorability. However, I was less persuaded by the ‘romanticisation’ of Janáček’s sound-world. Yes, the ENO Orchestra played with beguiling beauty of tone and sumptuousness of texture. But, the unalleviated mellifluousness did not take account of the score’s emotive contrasts, acerbity and silkiness lying side by side.

This was particularly noticeable in Acts 2 and 3 (there were five years between Acts 1 and 2). There is indeed great beauty in the score, but Janáček uses it for expressive purposes; there must be contrast for its impact to be felt. Indeed, the composer’s most powerful way of describing emotional states is through contrast. The ecstasies are ephemeral.

In order to secure a performance in Prague, Janáček had been forced to agree to conductor Karel Kovařovic’s revisions: Kovařovic ironed out irregularities of rhythm and harmony, doubled vocal lines, added lots of horn passages (Janáček preferred trombones) and removed overlapping voice parts; it was not until the 1980s, when John Tyrell restored the composer’s original intentions, that Janáček’s real voice was heard. And, it is a voice that requires more snarl from the brass, more spikiness in the motivic repetitions, greater schism between contrasting instrumental colours.

Carl Dahlhaus wrote that, ‘In contrast to Wagner, who keeps up the running commentary on the unfolding drama, Janáček is not present in his own person or discoursing in his own words; he is more like an observer, standing back unnoticed behind what he has to show us, which reveals itself in its own terms’. On one level, this production seems to stand back and reveal the prevailing sense of guilt: Jenůfa’s guilt about her pregnancy, Števa’s remorse when confronted with fatherhood, the stinging regret of the Kostelnička’s confession in the final Act.

But, Alden shows us that the characters are never isolated in their torments; the drama is one of human interaction, conflict and reconciliation. And, while realists among contemporary critics may have worried about the optimistic ending of Preissová’s play, here the final, heart-wrenching embrace of Laca and Jenůfa heals all wounds.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production details:

Jenůfa - Laura Wilde, Kostelnička - Michaela Martens, Laca - Peter Hoare, Števa - Nicky Spence, Grandmother Buryja - Valerie Reid, Mill Foreman/Mayor - Graeme Danby, Mayor’s Wife - Natalie Herman, Karolka - Soraya Mafi, Jano - Sarah Labiner; conductor - Mark Wigglesworth, director - David Alden, set designer - Charles Edwards, costume designer - Jon Morrell, lighting designer - Adam Silverman, original choreographer - Claire Glaskin, revival choreographer - Maxine Braham, Orchestra and Chorus of English National Opera.

English National Opera, Coliseum, London; Thursday 23rd June 2016.

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