Jenufa, Grange Park Opera, Theatre in the Woods, GPO, June 2017

Czech verismo with attendant Central European melancholy, this carries quite a punch.

Jenufa and Laca, all images GPO/ Robert Workman

There are four principal characters, Jenufa who is pregnant by Števa, her step-mother the Kostelnička (church sexton), and Števa’s half-brother Laca who adores Jenufa, but jealously cuts her face, disfiguring her. She adores Števa but he rejects her, and Laca is horrified by the existence of Števa’s baby. In desperation the Kostelnička plays the role of angel-maker and drowns it. When the dead baby comes to light in the springtime all hell breaks loose, she admits her sin and young Welsh soprano Natalya Romaniw as Jenufa lets out understanding and forgiveness that hits an Isolde-like climax. Devastatingly good.

Jenufa and Števa

This was a very strong cast that performed and sang superbly. Nicky Spence and Peter Hoare reprised the roles of Števa and Laca they sang a year ago for English National Opera, Spence hugely outgoing, irreverent and vocally strong as the feckless Laca, and Hoare more troubled, studied and lyrically sympathetic. Events change these half-brothers, and both elicit our sympathy, while Susan Bullock as the Kostelnička draws us into her agony, torn between love for her step-daughter and her role as stern and upright village matriarch.

Other roles received exemplary performances, with Anne Marie Owens strong and steady as Grandmother Burya, Harry Thatcher a bold presence as Stárek the mill foreman, the fine bass of Jihoon Kim as the mayor, Hanna-Liisa Kirchen singing strongly as his waspish wife and Heather Ireson notable as their daughter Karolka, engaged to Števa. The BBC Concert Orchestra under the baton of William Lacey gave bite to Janáček’s remarkable music that was based on his deep understanding of speech rhythms, and its harrowing power found expression most strikingly in Natalya Romaniw’s fine performance of the title role. From misplaced love for Števa, and huge caring for her baby, to an acceptance of Laca and ability to move away from her step-mother and form her own life, Ms Romaniw fully brought out the emotional growth she experiences. Truly wonderful.

Kostelnička, Jenufa and baby

Katie Mitchell’s production from the Welsh National Opera works well in showing the closed society of a Moravian village, but I do wish revival director Robin Tebbutt had had the nerve to cut the dreadful final tableau showing a nice looking young boy in a garden. This intrusion into the final moments where Laca pledges his devotion to Jenufa come what may, ignores the stunning vocal ending. This is no fairy tale, but the realisation of raw emotional power from a composer who understood how to turn the agonies of real life into music.

Performances continue on July 6 and 8 — for details click here.

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