Jenufa, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, June 2016Posted on 24 June 2016
This is exactly what the ENO should be doing, presenting a straightforward staging with fine singers and a conductor capable of fully realising the drama.
Mark Wigglesworth, who resigned as music director three months ago, allowed Janáček’s score to express the emotional power it embodies and the second act, where the drama makes its turning point, began and ended with terrific orchestral punch. This is where Jenufa’s step-mother the Kostelnička worries her heart out, and Michaela Martens’ portrayal was utterly riveting. The sympathy for her step-daughter’s predicament, with a tiny baby that her prospective husband Laca cannot accept, is so clearly what drives her, rather than the scowling severity that sometimes overtakes this role. Her moving interaction with the quiet simplicity of American soprano Laura Wilde’s beautifully nuanced Jenufa, her empathy for the baby’s uselessly imprudent father Števa, played with admirable obnoxiousness by Nicky Spence, and her skilful dealing with the impulsive tension of Laca, in Peter Hoare’s well-sung portrayal, was what really drove the drama. It was an electrifying performance of the key role of Jenufa’s step-mother, in what became Janáček’s first real masterpiece.
As Act II developed, Laura Wilde’s plaintive expression of her feelings and her lovely prayer were delivered with simple conviction, and as the Kostelnička and later Laca joined her, the beautiful orchestral playing rendered heartfelt emotion that could hardly be bettered. This is as good as it gets. Strong performances from the rest of the cast, with Valerie Reid notable as Grandmother Burya, and Graeme Danby as the Foreman in Act I and Mayor in Act III. One can argue that Janáček’s emphasis on speech rhythms mean the opera should always be performed in Czech, but the singers’ fine enunciation of the English translation enhanced the clarity of the story.
David Alden’s 2006 production — this is its second revival — set in the dull Czechoslovakia of Communist times, serves the story rather well. Laca’s knife wound to Jenufa’s face appears entirely accidental, due to his impulsive emotional state, and the grey staging, enhanced by Števa’s antics in Act I, the pretty young women and the tacky colours of the Mayor’s wife in Act III, help expose the central emotional conflict that this opera provides.
Congratulations to the ENO for reviving this fine production of Janáček’s remarkable opera with such talent on stage and in the pit. Mark Wigglesworth will be sorely missed.
Performances continue on various dates until July 8 — for details click here.