ENO’s Jenůfa burns slowly, its opening scene a meticulously measured psychological study of alienation and longing spread out over a gloomy expanse of concrete and harsh electric lighting. Amidst this barren backdrop, the work’s rural Moravian village transposed to an industrial estate in the Eastern Bloc, a wistful Jenůfa dreams of the future she will have with her beloved fiancé, Števa. She clutches a small, sad plant, a sprout of green hope conspicuously out of place in the unremittingly bleak landscape. Then Števa arrives, drunk and wild and raging, and it strikes home that despite Jenůfa’s aspirations there is little room for hope or love to blossom in this place.

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The achievement of David Alden’s production, presented here in its second London revival, lies in its sharp psychological acuity, the way it gives physical shape to the essential isolation felt by each of the characters. Jenůfa despairs over her fiancé and the shameful secret of her pregnancy; her stepmother, the frigid Kostelnička, has never fully recovered from the abuse she suffered from her dead husband; Števa is a boorish alcoholic, his half-brother Laca deeply lonely and vainly in love with Jenůfa. Happiness feels as much out of place in this context asJenůfa’s meagre plant.

This is reinforced by the pronounced distance between the characters on stage, borne out still further by the accentuated space of Charles Edwards’ barren set design, reminding us how far removed we are from any warmth or joy in humanity. The Kostelnička’s cabin is a surreal room, wide and angled with an icon of the Virgin Mary tucked into an alcove and two chairs placed on opposite sides of the room’s slanted floor. Characters face each other from across the stage, rarely drawing too near one another. It is only in the closing moments of the opera that we achieve a sense of connection between the characters as the Kostelnčika’s terrible sacrifice is made known, paving the way at the last for real love as Jenůfa and Laca are able to give themselves to the other without reservation or regret.

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It is a stirring moment, transfixing in the sudden sweep of the orchestra. Mark Wigglesworth conducts an account of Janacek’s multifaceted score that is rich and nuanced, drifting seamlessly through the variegations of light and shade that colour the drama’s stark emotional landscape. I can hardly remember the ENO Orchestra sounding better; from the uneasy tonal shadings of the first act, to Janice Graham’s exquisite violin solos during the prelude and Jenůfa’s prayer and the abrupt bursts of opulence that explode in the finale, Janáček’s world is evoked with an electric current that is as exciting as it is masterfully executed.

The understated delicacy of Wigglesworth’s approach makes Janáček’s abrupt gestures of sonic crescendo all the more impactful. It cannot but feel deeply sad that this marks Wigglesworth’s last production during his brief tenure as musical director of ENO. He may be going out on a high note, but the natural insight he brings to Janáček will certainly be missed.

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The cast is never less than superb. Laura Wilde excelled as Jenůfa, capturing all the wistful beauty of the young, naïve country girl in the first act in a way that was deeply poignant. Her tone is bright and warm, lit by an upper register that is clear and glorious; her second act prayer succeeded in being both incredibly beautiful and intensely sad. She sang with nuance, and transitioned credibly from youthful optimism into the more knowing woman in the second act who is physically scarred and loses both her lover and her child. The change was heartrending to watch, as it ought to be.

Her scenes with her stepmother were dramatically magnificent, the combined singing often spine-tingling. Michaela Martens brought sympathy, grandeur, and grace to the Kostelnička. Like her stepdaughter, her character shifts tremendously during the course of the opera, from her icy presence in the first act to her desperation and breakdown under the weight of her sin by the third. She maintained a steady tone and remarkable intensity in the highest reaches of the role’s challenging tessitura; her singing was often genuinely thrilling.

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The original Czech title of the work on which Jenůfa is based is Její pastorkyňa, or Her Stepmother, which drives home the importance of the character in the work. Ms. Martens was certainly the heart of Act II, the psychological struggle undergone by her character as she prays to the Virgin Mary and ultimately decides to do what she believes best for her step-daughter at any cost richly evoked. It is interesting hearing a mezzo-soprano voice cast rather than a soprano; it added richness to her singing, and made the dramatic frisson between her voice and Ms. Wilde’s all the more exciting.

ENO Harewood Artist Nicky Spence was a delightfully repugnant Števa, large-statured and bold with a soaring tenor voice to match. There was a tremendous contrast between his boastful self-confidence and the awkward diffidence of his half-brother Laca, touchingly portrayed by Peter Hoare. Mr. Hoare shifted easily from a self-conscious loner to a fervent lover desperate to be with the woman who is engaged to his brother; his strangeness in the first act melted to impassioned, thrilling singing in the second. His timbre is warm and clarion, his singing a well-judged match for Ms. Wilde’s. Their final scene on stage together, when they finally are allowed to forego all guilt and tragedy and accept each other in mutual joy, was indelibly beautiful.

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There was not a weak link to be found in the cast, with Valerie Reid an unexpectedly touching and most amusing Grandmother Buryja, and Graeme Danby an unusually threatening foreman. Soraya Mafi was a fine Karolka, acting the part with perfectly judged hauteur, as did Natlie Herman as her mother, the Mayor’s wife.

This was music-drama of the highest order, vivid orchestral playing and singing buoyed by intensely sculpted theatre. Adam Silverman’s lighting and John Morrell’s costume designed further sharpened the atmosphere; every character has a different style of dress, each well-suited to them. The whole made for a stirring evening of acutely drawn characterisation and simply wonderful music. The punchy libretto also made a strong case for opera in English; the visceral impact of the drama was surely granted greater immediacy to an audience who largely would not have known Czech, and the excellent diction of the cast bolstered this impact. For all its challenging and upsetting themes, Jenůfa is ultimately about the incredible human capacity for love, sacrifice, and redemption. ENO’s production and its excellent cast do full justice to this most important, if often all too ephemeral, of ideals.

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It strikes me as a state of affairs that one can hardly write of such a triumph without one’s thoughts being driven to the financial and artistic difficulties besieging ENO, not least with Mr. Wigglesworth now departing. This Jenůfa is a stirring reminder of just how magnificent the company can be, and what a detriment it would be to London’s cultural life to lose it.

5 stars

John E.de Wald

(Photos : Donald Cooper / ENO website)

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