Sunday, 15 March 2009

Jenufa - English National Opera

Jenufa by Janacek
Translators: Otakar Kraus & Edward Downes
Director: David Alden
Conductor: Elvind Galberg Jenson
Reviewer: Crystal Alonsi

Another triumph for the ENO! Don't be dismayed by the beginning of the first Act---your perseverance will be rewarded! Amanda Roocraft in the title role, made a somewhat hesitant start, seeming slightly overawed by her surroundings, and I did wonder whether or not she would be able to last the whole evening. However, this subdued beginning soon vanished in a glorious, confident flood of sound.

The opening scene in a bleak, strangely silent Eastern European factory did not bode well for the evening. The treasured and portentous Rosemary plant, whose progress or lack of was reportedly so pivotal to the happiness of the main characters, looked remarkably un-Rosemary like from where I was sitting. It might seem like a very minor point, but as it spent a long time front centre stage being sung over at considerable length, it would have been good if props had managed to rustle up the genuine article.

Likewise, why did Laca (Robert Brubaker), who gave a magnificently controlled and powerful rendition of his singing role give such little thought to his acting? For a large part of the opening scene he aimlessly fidgeted with two long metal bars. Five minutes spent watching a genuine welder would have given him more than enough information on which to base this piece of stage business, transforming it into meaningful activity rather than an irritating and pointless distraction.

Janacek’s opera is unusual in that it largely consists of dialogue accompanied by music to produce a musical play based on real events, enhanced by sympathetic, beautifully crafted music. The young Norwegian conductor Eivind Jensen gave himself over completely to his task. He took the music along at a good pace; Janacek can sometimes wallow, but he brought out the voluptuous lyricism of the violin in Act two; the tender longing in the music contrasted sharply with the bleak, distorted set.

Amanda Roocraft did justice to Janacek’s work, singing and acting with convincing sensitivity. Her lively enthusiasm with Jano, the shepherd boy, (Julia Sporsen) the youngster she has taught to read, was engaging, and a powerful metaphor for her own situation. Here was Jenufa, the educator, the one who leads out, nevertheless completely tied by her own circumstances and stifling surroundings. Having been taught to read, Jano wants to learn to write, yet his teacher, Jenufa, cannot convey her own feelings. Her protégé has a whole new world to explore, but before long, Jenufa is confined for five months to virtual captivity in just two rooms, Jenufa is shown as a sympathetic supportive friend even to the underdog.

Love in its many forms is the key to the drama in this opera. Laca represents unrequited love, Steva demonstrates lust and narcissism masquerading as love. Kostelnicka, the stepmother’s love is mostly for herself and her own pride. Having fallen for the blandishments of fickle, self-centred, drunken and feckless Steva, Jenufa has given herself in love to him then finds herself pregnant and therefore desperate to marry, to avoid shame and censure. Ignoring the advances of Steva’s, jealous stepbrother Laca, who in desperate and uncharacteristic pique cuts her face, Jenufa tries to persuade Steva to marry her.

Kostelnicka (Micaela Martins) gave a commanding portrayal of Jenufa’s stepmother who; consumed by fear, feels driven to murder as the only way of preventing public humiliation. She justifies her actions by claiming to have love for her stepdaughter and a desire to protect her honour. Her accent swerved from American through English to Irish somewhat disconcertingly throughout a powerful, brooding performance.

The use of shadows in Act Two gave the air of a Hitchcock or Ridley Scott film. At one point Jenufa is pleading with Kostelnicka, who is some distance upstage, but her stepmother’s shadow, misshapen and menacing almost touches Jenufa and the door to the room where her precious, doomed baby sleeps.

In the last scene, as surrealistically the walls part and the villagers advance, tension rises as the finger of blame points inexorably at Jenufa until finally in a passionate outburst Kostelnicka dramatically admits to the baby’s murder. The opera closes a Jenufa, rising above all the agony, turmoil and grief of her past, decides to forgive her stepmother and commit herself to Laca, whose love and loyalty offer the hope of a new life and happiness together.

All in all it was an inspiring end to a magnificent evening!

Photos: Robert Workman

Jenufa runs at the ENO until March 23rd (5 performances)
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