Why Janáček is in the last-chance saloon
Of the many good reasons for seeing English National Opera’s revival of Janáček’s harrowing masterpiece, none is more urgent than the prospect of a future ENO forging ahead without one of the greatest opera composers in its repertoire. Only last week on Radio 4, the company’s recently appointed artistic director Daniel Kramer gushed naively that “Janáček and the other obscures” would not be a priority in future. Somehow, Kramer overlooked the power of this Moravian master and the fact that no opera house outside of Prague or Brno has had a closer relationship with his works than ENO.
This is the second revival of David Alden’s 2006 production of Jenůfa, and it remains as grim and emotionally shattering as before. In Charles Edwards’s grey, monochromatic set, Alden’s scenario dispenses with the village watermill, fast-forwarding the action to a dark industrial mill in communist Czechoslovakia. We first encounter Grandmother Buryja (the excellent mezzo Valerie Reed) on duty in the factory’s sentry box, and an electric drill and saw are a reminder that Alden, who made his ENO debut with his famous “chainsaw” Mazeppa three decades ago, has always been in thrall to the horrors of hardware.
Excellent diction from everyone underlines the value of the company’s English language policy, and this despite a surging orchestra in the pit. Conducting the last production of his short-lived music directorship, Mark Wigglesworth shapes a taut account of the score. Right from the searing, bittersweet opening, the music’s warmth and humanity speak directly. Even the most flawed characters are given the benefit of musical nuance, although Nicky Spence’s powerfully sung, stage-hogging Steva does turn oafishness into an art form. As the initially resentful Laca, Peter Hoare uses his clarion tenor to convey nervous energy.
By contrast, and at least when compared with some interpreters of the leading female roles, the two main protagonists might seem a little ordinary – but perhaps that is the point of this production. While the young American soprano Laura Wilde (in her European debut) lacks ideal radiance for the redemptive final scene, with wonderful colours in her voice she is deeply affecting as the village girl whose baby is murdered by her stepmother, the Kostelnicka. Unlike some scenery-chewing Kostelnickas, Michaela Martens sings with a warmth that shows how she is driven to try to shield Jenůfa by her own unhappy past.
Nuanced singing: Nicky Spence as Steva and Laura Wilde in the title role of