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<em> Jenůfa </em>, Grange Park Opera
19 Jun 2017

A heart-rending Jenůfa at Grange Park Opera

Katie Mitchell’s 1998 Welsh National Opera production of Janáček’s first mature opera, Jenůfa, is a good choice for Grange Park Opera’s first season at its new home, West Horsley Place. Revived by Robin Tebbutt, Mitchell and designer Vicki Mortimer’s 1930s urban setting emphasises the opera’s lack of sentimentality and subjectivism, and this stark realism is further enhanced by the narrow horseshoe design of architect Wasfi Kani’s ‘Theatre in the Woods’ whose towering walls and narrow width seem to add further to the weight of oppression which constricts the lives of the inhabitants.

Jenůfa, Grange Park Opera

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Grange Park Opera, ensemble

Photo credit: Robert Workman


Mitchell does away with the Czech village and its mill, and thus there is no sense of the external milieu - the living community whose disapproval and denunciation the Kostelnička so fears - to match the undeniable local colour in the score. More importantly, the religious oppression which stifles the protagonists’ lives is reduced to a token piece of iconography on a far wall. The result is that there it is not made clear how the actions and decisions, so often tragic, of the protagonists are inescapably driven by the context and community. In fact, the only hint of communal approbation comes when the Mayor’s wife (Hanna-Lisa Kirchen) dismisses Jenůfa’s understated, grey wedding-dress as unsuitably dour and inappropriate.

However, the confining walls of Mortimer’s austere 1930s kitchen certainly evoke a fitting claustrophobia, and the slanting ceiling seems further to crush down the inhabitants, much like the Kostelnička’s rigid authority. It has to be noted, though, that the lack of space inhibits the choreography of the ensemble scenes, such as Števa’s blustering arrival in Act 1 and the wedding celebrations in the final act. Act 2 tightens the psychological screw still further: hidden away by the Kostelnička, the new mother is condemned to a back room, a small black box, and the lack of decorative adornment focuses our attention on the emotional torment that afflicts all.

Welsh soprano Natalya Romaniw first came to my attention when she won the 2012 Kathleen Ferrier Competition . Since then she her rise has been steady and sure; she was an excellent Liza in Opera Holland Park’s Queen of Spades in 2016, and during the same summer performed Tatyana in Garsington’s Eugene Onegin . One of my colleagues noted Romaniw’s ‘wonderful lyrical dramatic voice’ and the ‘real sense of vibrant passion’ that she brought to the latter role - ‘you constantly felt Tatyana’s presence, whether singing or not, without ever pulling focus’ - comments that would not be out of place here. There was astonishing warmth in Romaniw’s portrayal of the hesitant peasant girl and a true sense of feeling - the fullness of Jenůfa’s desires and hopes, the veracity of her fears and doubts. In the first Act, the tone occasionally had a slightly harsh edge as she sang through the Czech text, but as she relaxed so the sound enriched. Jenůfa’s tenderness for her child, and the essential goodness conveyed through her Act 2 prayer, made her visible shock when learning of her son’s death even more intolerably tragic: ‘So he died’, she says, simply, when the Kostelnička bluntly informs her that she has lost her son. And, her terrible bereavement, at first quietly accepted, resurges with terrifying force when the dead body of the child is discovered under the ice and she recognises the tiny red cap that she knitted for him. Never has such a small motif borne an emotional weight of greater poignancy.

Susan Bullock & Natalya Romaniw.jpg Susan Bullock (Kostelnička), Natalya Romaniw (Jenůfa). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Susan Bullock is making her role debut as the Kostelnička, but it’s clear that she has a piercing appreciation of her character’s essential qualities, and how to convey them through both voice and body. Bullock is utterly convincing in communicating the sextoness’s unbending moral will, but she shows too how her own life is just as tragically constricted as the lives of those she dominates. Her love for her step-daughter is never in doubt, and her sense of damnation is palpable as she begs for Jenůfa’s forgiveness in the final Act.

In Act II she used incisive vocal inflections to take us deep into the Kostelnička’s psyche, as she formulated the words she would use to confront Števa with his moral fecklessness. And, there was a terrible irony as she envisaged the accusations that the villagers would fling at her and Jenůfa should they discover the existence of the illegitimate child, her imaginings foreshadowing the denunciation and disgrace of the final act.

The theatre has an excellent acoustic and there were a few occasions when Nicky Spence, a brazenly irresponsible Števa, and Peter Hoare, a dark and tense Laca, might have held back just a little. But, the soaring strength of their vocal lines conveyed enormous passion. Spence’s slightly warmer expansiveness matched the carefree profligacy of the drunken businessman, while Hoare’s intense focus imbued the veristic arioso with a blend of bitterness and love which literally, as he twisted his hands and his body shrank inwards, seemed to wrack his frame, as if he was being eaten from within by his jealousy. The utter credibility of their relationship and conflict is perhaps not surprising given that the pair are building upon their superb performances in David Alden’s production of the opera at ENO last summer.

The smaller roles were no less accomplished. Jihoon Kim was a sympathetic Mayor, Anne Marie Owens delivered Grandmother Burya’s exhortations with style, and Harry Thatcher sang with tremendous directness and agility as the mill foreman, Stárek. Eleanor Garside’s exuberant Jana - one of the village girls whom Jenůfa teaches to read, hoping that they may attain a better life - brought a welcome brightness and liveliness into the bleakness. Heather Ireson (Karolka), Alexandra Lowe (Barena), Amy Lyddon (Pastuchyna) and Jessica Robinson (Tetka) completed the fine cast and joined together to sing a beautifully sincere wedding song in the final Act.

William Lacey made sure that the BBC Concert Orchestra painted a colourful, sometimes biting, musical soundscape and if occasionally one might have wished for a little more Slavic warmth and fire this was more than made up for by the range of timbre and ceaseless energy of the playing.

Looking at the photograph in the season programme book of the state of the building site with just 83 days to go before curtain-up, it seemed incredible that we were sitting in a theatre at all, let alone enjoying such a vivid and heart-tugging performance.

There was just one ‘wrong note’: the ending. In the 1970s, one reviewer of the opera, Lindsay Browne remarked that the ending brought to mind the work of Thomas Hardy or the King Lear-Cordelia reconciliation scene, ‘for the kind of aching swell of generosity which shines forth from J’s resolution of many sorrows (Australian Sun-Herald 28 July 1974), and this doesn’t seem an inappropriate account of the experience of the final apotheosis of the opera when Laca and Jenůfa are finally reconciled.

Mitchell adds a closing scene of her own: an angelic young boy - the dead baby? - stands amid a garden of flowers and waves ambiguously (at whom?). This is at odds with hard-hitting realism of the rest of Mitchell’s production, and with the rejection of such mysticism by both the composer and the writer, Gabriel Preissová, on whose play (Její pastorkyňa; Her Foster-daughter) the libretto is based. It’s a pity, too, since this Jenůfa presents some powerfully penetrating psychological portraits.

Jenůfa continues, alongside Tosca and Die Walküre, until 8 July:

Claire Seymour

Leoš Janáček: Jenůfa

Jenůfa - Natalya Romaniw, Števa - Nicky Spence, Kostelnička - Susan Bullock, Laca - Peter Hoare, Mayor - Jihoon Kim, Grandmother - Anne-Marie Owens, Starek - Harry Thatcher, Mayor’s Wife - Hanna-Liisa Kirchin, Karolka - Heather Ireson, Barena - Alexandra Lowe, Jano - Eleanor Garside, Pastuchyna - Amy Lyddon; director - Katie Mitchell, revival director - Robin Tebbutt, conductor - William Lacey, designer - Vicki Mortimer, original lighting designer - Nigel Edwards, lighting designer - Paul Keogan, original choreographer - Struan Leslie, revival choreography - Lucy Cullingford, BBC Consort Orchestra.

Grange Park Opera, West Horsley; Saturday 17th June 2017.

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