Why Janáček is in the last-chance sa­loon

The Daily Telegraph - - Arts - By John Al­li­son

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.

Jenůfa

Nu­anced singing: Nicky Spence as Steva and Laura Wilde in the ti­tle role of

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