In a modest introduction to the published text of Jenufa by the Czech playwright Gabriela Preissova, Timberlake Wertenbaker explains how her adaptation, based on a literal translation by David Short, departs in both major and minor ways from the original.
We know the title as the magnificent, searingly emotional opera by Janacek, who wrote both libretto and score based on Preissova’s controversial 1910 folk drama originally known as Her Stepdaughter. Jenufa’s the stepdaughter of the village sacristan Kostelnichka, who kills Jenufa’s baby to preserve her honour after the father, Steva, a drunken mill owner, has been placed on a year’s probation before he can marry her.
Steva’s step-brother Latsa is in love with Jenufa and, in his frustration, accidentally scars her with his knife. When Steva is told of the child, he confesses that he’s now repulsed by the facially disfigured Jenufa and is about to marry the mayor’s daughter anyway. In the opera, when the dead child is discovered, frozen under the lake, Kostelnichka is forgiven by her daughter; Wertenbaker presumably follows Preissova in – perhaps more understandably – having Jenufa say that the old girl can go rot in hell.
Irina Brown’s Arcola production – the play’s British premiere – as designed by Louis Price has an externalised “Russian” feel to it, with a capella chants, lots of ensemble physical movement, and heavy iron chains hanging like grim beaded curtains at either end of a huge traverse acting area which is lit from ground level by lamps like searchlights.
But the enormity of the events seems to have overwhelmed the cast, who play with virtually no inner spiritual conviction. Paola Dionisotti’s Kostelnichka is a sort of comic mountebank in walking boots and headscarf with a pronounced nasal whine and a knapsack of trinkets and potions she riffles through like a New Age gypsy.
Larrington Walker’s mayor and Patti Love as his skittish wife seem to have wandered in from Gogol, while Jodie McNee’s Jenufa is a sweetly scrubbed Irish peasant girl in ankle socks, a good country mile away from Janacek’s fantastically complex and conflicted devotional heroine.
For so experienced and gifted a writer, Wertenbaker’s script is almost wilfully flat and banal, as though aiming (misguidedly, in my view) for the power of understatement. The chanting sounds are tacked on to compensate, but the movement and musical passages by Christopher Sivertsen are self-defeatingly over-mechanical and unevenly executed.
Ben Mansfield’s Steva is a handsome, suitably despicable brute, but only Oscar Pearce as Latsa comes anywhere near the heart of the matter in his grounded sense of reality and unswerving expression of thwarted love. As for any rhapsodic conclusion: back to Janacek.
- Michael Coveney