No Janáček opera has been seen at the ROH since 2010 – The Cunning Little Vixen, conducted by the already mortally ill Charles Mackerras in his last performances in the house – and it’s a full fifteen years since Jenůfa was last given there, under Haitink, in a dismally bad, unrevived staging by Olivier Tambosi (the one with the bloody great boulder on stage throughout Act II that’s bizarrely ended up at the Metropolitan until this very day) with Anja Silja as the Kostelnička and Karita Mattila in the title role. (The only other outing in Bow Street that Janáček has had this century was the final performances of Trevor Nunn’s clunky and largely ineffectual staging of Katya Kabanova, in 2007.) Long gone are the days when Covent Garden mounted three different revivals of Jenůfa within the space of five seasons (in the mid-1970s) the last of which, in 1977, had Jon Vickers as Laca, a performance of such searing intensity that I can see and hear it even now. Alas, there’s still no sign of the long-gestating new Janáček cycle there actually starting before 2017/18 at the earliest, and those of us who grew up with the Moravian master’s works as a regular, matter-of-fact part of the operatic diet – championed mainly by Mackerras, both at the ROH and ENO when it was truly a force to be reckoned with, and Richard Armstrong at the WNO, who brought all their Janáčeks to the Dominion, including The Makropoulos Case with Elisabeth Söderström – have been appallingly badly served ever since. It’s beyond high time this unaccountable situation was remedied, and one of opera’s greatest composers restored to his rightful place in the repertory here. End of rant.

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In the interim, we’ve had more reason to be grateful to Jiří Bĕlohlávek than anybody else for at least bringing us concert presentations of some of the operas, first at the Barbican with his then BBC forces – Mr. Brouček’s Excursions, The Cunning Little Vixen – and now tonight at the RFH, with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, and an entirely Czech cast, bar one (Mme. Mattila, of course). They first performed the work together three days ago, in the Rudolfinum concert hall, though I dare say that many involved have long had familiarity with both the work and each other as part of the Prague Opera House’s normal repertory process, except for Mattila, whose role debut as Kostelnička this is. And what a debut! Notwithstanding the fact that – unlike the Barbican concerts which were actually very effectively semi-staged – this presentation was strictly a line-up-behind-music-stands, heads-buried-in-scores affair, Mattila as always found her way to the emotional heart of the drama, and despite en passant distractions of greater or lesser import – there was surtitle trouble in Act I, and the soprano suffered from a fidgety platform manner throughout when not performing – she rose to the challenge of Act II with absolute vocal conviction and tonal splendour, even managing a moment of authentic Mattila madness, terrifying to behold, when deciding to murder her inconvenient and illegitimate grandchild. In this kind of form, there’s no-one quite like her in opera today, and the sooner Covent Garden gets on with it the better (she is, I believe, cast in at least two of the Janáček works they’re doing).

Adriana Kohútková sang the title role with much finesse and absolutely no trace of what used to be referred to as “Slavic wobble”. But despite also singing the right repertory in terms of weight and range for Jenůfa – Elsa, Elisabeth, Tatiana, Rusalka – I have to say that the soprano struck me as lacking a clearly defined lower mid-range, which meant that any amount of faster-moving declamation in that part of the voice was all-but inaudible from the Stalls (let alone the Balcony). There’s certainly a finely focussed, heroic glint to the top, but the absences elsewhere and a generalised soft lyric warmth lend a regrettable pallidity to her portrayal, surely too small-scale and withdrawn in utterance, especially up against such a powerhouse parent. This was made even clearer by the presence in the cast, as Karolka, of what is surely the ideal voice for the role, that of Lucie Silkenová, who also far more plausibly looks the part and whose minor contribution in Act III registered far more positively. Yvona Škvárová wobbled and blustered authentically enough as Grandmother Buryja (though hardly erasing memories of the wonderful, much steadier Eva Randová) whilst Marta Reichelová, as the young boy Jano, sang with a penetrating, steely tone that filled the hall.

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As the good-for-nothing sexpot seducer Steva, Jaroslav Březina – surely a mite too long of tooth for the role – sang with a fair amount of clarion precision. But he has a disagreeable tendency to yowl in vibrato-free white tone on and above the stave – albeit, impressively, absolutely in tune – that rather undermines the seductiveness Janáček wrote into his part. On the other hand, Aleš Briscein sang easily the best Laca I’ve heard since Vickers, of immaculate musicianship and intelligence, and with a timbre at once both reedy and yet full-bodiedly powerful (an unusual combination, this, where reedy normally equates to thin, but certainly not here). Svatopluk Sem – whom you may have encountered singing the title role in Villazón’s jolly TV documentary about the making of Don Giovanni – sounded quite gloriously firm and resonant as the foreman of the mill in Act I, happily balancing out the worn bass wooflings of Ludĕk Vele as the Mayor in Act III.

But in truth, and Mattila aside, this whole evening’s real star-turn was the “infrastructure” in the shape of the Czech Philharmonic’s wondrous playing, the chorus’s fiercely disciplined singing, and Maestro Bĕlohlávek’s flawless conducting. When he first appeared, I wondered who had replaced him at such short notice and why no announcement had been made, since I didn’t actually recognise the rather shrunken man who mounted the podium. It was only when he started to conduct that the familiar gestures made me look again more closely and realise with a jolt that it was indeed him. His conducting was as ductile, rhythmically alert, warmly shaped (warmer than Mackerras in this repertory, by some margin) and idiomatically effortless as one could ever hope to encounter. As for the orchestra’s response, it rather beggars description, and I’m just left marvelling that such relatively modest forces – 68 in total, with just 44 strings – can possibly produce such a cultivated, suavely silky sound of infinite corporate virtuosity whilst hammering away at the composer’s characteristically ubiquitous ostinatos without any sense of strain whatsoever. The sheerly sensuous sonority of the blazing C major finale glowed from within in a way that I’ve never quite encountered before, providing the ultimate in operatic uplift.

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Not surprisingly, at the end the not-quite sold out audience rose to its feet with both spontaneity and unanimity, something which remains rare in London – well, “classical” London, at least – but which was fully justified by the overwhelming communicative power and precision of the performance we’d just heard. Several of the same principal singers and Maestro Bĕlohlávek – this time with his erstwhile BBC forces – will present The Makropoulos Case at the Proms in August. I won’t be reviewing it, alas, but I strongly advise you to go, especially if you were unfortunate enough to miss this superb Jenůfa.

4½ *

Stephen Jay-Taylor © 2016

(Photos : Petr Kadlec)

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