In 2006 I wrote: “I’m slightly ashamed to admit I don’t actually have or really know any Janacek, but that is now going to change.” And did it change? My arse it did. But this time I mean it; I really do. What gorgeous music! Obviously I don’t have another production with which to compare it, but it seemed to me that conductor Eivind Gullberg Jensen had a real feeling for the score, and brought out excellent playing from the orchestra, including some particularly nice solo string lines. The oboe and cor anglais were also stand-outs.
The production was updated somewhat, and costumes looking vaguely late 20th century, but the small-minded spitefulness and culture of casual alcoholism and abuse pervading the village was all too convincing. Amanda Roocroft was a searing Jenůfa, moving from a lively, romantic young woman at the start, to broken wreck spending most of her pregnancy hiding alone in a small room in her mother’s house, through grief and bereavement to a new strength and forgiveness at the end. Michaela Martens delivered a powerful performance as Kostelnička, torn between genuine love for her stepdaughter and nephew Laca, hatred for Števa and his offspring, religious mania, and an abject fear of scandal and her village’s disapproval. Although her act of murder is, at least to modern audiences, undoubtedly unforgivable, Martens was able to make the character’s actions understandable, and the subsequent mental breakdown believable.
Susan Gorton was another acting highlight, bringing some rare moments of humour to the smaller role of Grandmother Buryja. Unfortunately many of the other roles and chorus appeared to be competing for the prize of Ham of the Show, with a great deal of ‘angry’ stomping and fist clenching, ‘drunk’ staggering and bottle-waving, and some of the most unconvincing stage prostitutes I’ve seen for a while. There were two silly peasant dances – an operatic convention of which I am far from fond – but fortunately they were both short. Tom Randle (Števa) and Robert Brubaker (Laca) indulged in a fair amount of this during Act 1, but then raised their performances considerably for Acts 2 and 3. Števa appeared first as a standard unpleasant lout, drunk in charge of a motorbike and flirting with other women to wind up his girlfriend, but became truly despicable in his later careless abandonment of Jenůfa and their child. Laca actually succeeded in making the audience, like Jenůfa, eventually warm to him; not an easy task considering his early violence towards her.
Vocally, this was a strong ensemble without weak links. In Act 1 I found Martens’ voice harsh and strident, but this is not inappropriate for the character, and in in her Act 2 scenes at home with Jenůfa she was like a different singer completely (again, entirely appropriate for delineating Kostelnička’s public and private personae), with warmth and roundness of tone. The two women’s voices worked very well together, and Act 2 was essentially one long musical highlight. I was also very pleasantly surprised by Robert Brubaker, who I thought was straining for the top notes when I heard him in 2006. No straining tonight, just a rich and ringing sound, forceful without being forced, and that dark smoky tone I particularly like in tenors.
Must listen to more Janáček.
Must listen to more Janáček.
In fact, I would like to buy a recording of this opera, and would appreciate readers’ suggestions, if anyone has any?