Scottish Opera have managed to present a very confident production of Janáček’s rather gloomy opera Jenůfa. It allows three fabulous female singers to shine brightly and makes a strong case for what might be regarded as a rather tricky original work. In what must have been a rather trying incident for all the performers, never mind the audience, the first night production was unfortunately delayed by three quarters of an hour whilst paramedics attended someone who had had an accident on the balcony steps. It was apparently not possible to put the house-lights down until the matter had been resolved and it was something of a relief by the time that the curtain eventually went up that it was going up at all. Fortunately, the delayed start didn’t affect the taught dramatic production and it was soon clear that this was going to be a night to remember.
Jenůfa is a rather complex piece at the best of times. A certain amount of prior knowledge of the relationships between the characters is required right from the word go. This was provided in the programme along with the curious information that the director Annilese Miskimmon had set this production in the west of Ireland in 1918 rather than in rural Moravia. I have to confess that moving the action to Ireland accomplished very little. Fortunately it didn’t get too much in the way of the story and it did explain the large white cottage (with wonderfully smoking chimneys) which had landed in the middle of the stage like a Tardis flying in from outer-space. Also, like the Tardis, it proved larger inside than it appeared on the outside once it opened up for the interior action later in the evening. The inside of the cottage was a good deal more interesting than the outside, though designers Nicky Shaw did manage to produce a very clinically clean early twentieth century rural Irish idyll.
But enough about the set – on to the singing. After all, this was a night at the opera that succeeded precisely because of some highly spirited and accomplished singing. First up was Lee Bissett in the title role. Her Jenůfa was a fairly sad girl from the outset – we saw her first lamenting her lot leaning against the cottage wall. There was nothing sad at all about her voice though which glistened throughout the evening. By the time we got to Jenůfa’s prayer to the Virgin in the second act, she was managing to combine extraordinary passion and beauty.
It was also clear early on that Anne-Marie Owens was going to be well worth listening to. Her grandmother character managed to combine despair with a certain mournful quality along with some cracking acting. Completing the trio of stand-out performances was Kathryn Harries as Kostelnička (ie Churchwarden’s widow) Buryjovka – Jenůfa’s step-mother. It is upon the Kostelnička that the whole story turns. She cares for Jenůfa to the point that she contemplates and eventually carries out the infanticide of Jenůfa’s child in order to facilitate the possibility of a marriage for the girl.
Perhaps the most uncomfortable realisation in the whole evening is that Janáček dedicated the work to a dead child of his own. What can he have been thinking about? Ms Harries had an awesome dramatic intensity to her singing which was more than able to deal with the vast range that Jenůfa demands from the singer. When the Kostelnička is eventually exposed as a child murderer, her reconciliation with Jenůfa and resignation to her fate was genuinely touching.
Things were not quite so secure amongst the male leads. Janáček calls for a pair of love interests for the leading lady, neither of whom is a particularly attractive character. (One longs for a feminist reinterpretation of the ending whereby Jenůfa shakes her head at all that is on offer and marches off on her own but it wasn’t happening in this production).
Peter Wedd made a reasonable stab at Laca but Sam Furness was a out of his depth as the hapless Števa. It is hard work being up against a full orchestra playing Janáček’s fabulous score at full pelt and Furness never really managed to make much of an impact against the wall of sound that was coming from the pit. Both men looked the part and there was nothing out of place in their acting abilities.
Stuart Stratford the conductor could have kept a bit more of a lid on the orchestra but there’s no denying how interesting the orchestrations are and a slight tendency towards too much sound could be forgiven for the range of colour that was on display and there’s no getting away from the fact that there was some splendid orchestral playing to be heard. Pacing was quite slick and that only helped to keep ratcheting up the tension on stage.
Honourable mentions go to two smaller parts. Jonathan May’s Mayor was perhaps the most distinguished male vocal singing of the evening. Rosalind Coad as Karolka their daughter was decidedly perky and fresh.
A large chorus (described in the programme as The Chorus of Jenůfa) was in good voice as the villagers. Scottish Opera doesn’t seem to be having any more luck appointing a chorus master than appointing a musical director at the moment, but Philip White can feel very proud of what he managed to achieve here before he heads off to become Head of Music at Grange Park Opera later this year.
Notwithstanding the curious decision to relocate affairs to Ireland, Annilese Miskimmon can be justly proud of producing one of Scottish Opera’s most interesting productions for quite some time. It is easy to recommend this co-production with Danish National Opera. It plays for a scandalously short run in Scotland – just three performances in Glasgow and two in Edinburgh. Worth catching if you can.
(Photos : James Glossop / Scottish Opera website)