Strong Jenufa

5 Nov

There seems to have been a slight drop off in the number of Janacek operas that are being done here recently.  By my calculations, Opera North’s latest revival is the first major Jenufa that’s been done here since 2009.  It’s certainly the first one that I’ve seen since then.  It’s a favourite of mine and I certainly wasn’t going to miss the performance at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle on 4th November.

There’s something about this opera which brings out the best in performers.  This was my fifteenth visit and I can only think of one disappointing performance out of those, one where at the end I wasn’t surrendering to tears.  What came across particularly at this very intense, honest performance was, first, how the motivation of all the disasters and all the problems was love and that, of itself, deserves forgiveness and, second, how certain Janacek’s music is.  This does not sound like a first serious opera by an unknown composer who struggled to get it right.  Every note seems right, the instrumentation apt and expressive.  It comes across, like Peter Grimes as a piece composed in white hot intensity.

Tom Cairns’s production for Opera North is twenty years old and he was on hand to rehearse it.  I’d not seen it before.  It’s clearly staged: you can follow the action easily and he gets good acting performances from his singers.  He offers us three sets which look ok on the Theatre Royal stage but probably looked better at Leeds.  They’re simple: a few images – a tree in Act I, a couple of beds and a door for Act II and a rather cramped looking room for Act III.  This is an opera where you actually don’t really need sets but these ones didn’t do much harm.  What was good was the sensitive direction of the singers: he didn’t mess about – the words and emotions were put across strongly and clearly.

The cast was good.  At its centre was Susan Bickley as the Kostelnicka.  She caught the intolerance, the tension that arises out of being locked up with Jenufa for months, the human hatred of the others and the guilt at the end.  She sang it strongly, putting the words across as well as you could hope and, rightly, dominating an opera that is as much about her as about Jenufa.   She’s a wonderful singer and this glorious central performance came as no surprise.  Ylva Kihlberg made a nice, open, loving Jenufa – rather more successful than her Emilia Marty here.  She caught what the role was about and sang it openly, lovingly and with really excellent English diction.

The surprise was the outstanding Laca of David Butt Philip.  Here was heroic, strong, passionate singing from someone who will surely be a fabulous Peter Grimes one day.  It was a joy to hear an English singer sing with this strength and passion.  Dramatically he was believably gauche and loving.  It was also good to hear Ed Lyon in non-baroque repertory.  This, again, was clear, well acted and very attractively sung: he caught just the right easy, sexy charm of the man and his honest thoughtfulness.

Elizabeth Sikora was a good grandmother, Dean Robinson as very strong Foreman and the rest of the cast were fine.  Good chorus work.

Aleksander Markovic is from Brno and so should know his Janacek.  I very much enjoyed his certain, clear conducting.  From recollection it was broader and more lyrical than Mackerras and he brought out some lovely orchestral colours – the woodwind at the opening, for example.  The orchestra wasn’t quite on Ring for – bits of it felt a bit bumpy – but it all came across well.

By my calculations it’s more than 25 years since this opera was last seen in Newcastle.  The theatre wasn’t full and the performance deserved a full house (as does the opera).  Listening to the audience (many of whom clearly weren’t strangers to theatre or opera) I felt surprised at how many simply weren’t familiar with the piece and were surprised at how wonderful it was.  People say that Janacek is now mainstream.  On this showing, I’m not sure that this is right.  It’s going to take a very long time before this opera takes its rightful place as one of the very greatest masterpieces of the genre.

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