For the first time since its scorching premičre in 2006, which won English National Opera two 2007 Olivier Awards (Best New Production and, for Amanda Roocroft, Outstanding Achievement in Opera), David Alden’s Jenůfa has returned to the London Coliseum for just five performances. On the showing of the third performance last night, the production has lost none of its power, even when most of the cast are new to the production.
Alden himself is back to direct this first revival, before heading straight into rehearsals for his new ENO Peter Grimes (opens 9 May), and Amanda Roocroft reprises her award-winning performance in the title role. All the other principals and also the conductor are new to the production.
Robert Brubaker and Tom Randle are opposites as step-brothers Laca and Števa: the one diffident, scruffy and unstable; the other cocky, vain – preening himself in his leathers as he arrives on his motorbike, rather like Escamillo in Carmen – but ultimately vacuous.
Most impressively, making her European debut in the role of Kostelnička is Michaela Martens, who traces her black-garbed character’s deep-seated sense of decorum as it topples from fervour to extremism. As an upstanding pillar of her community – in Alden’s hands a modern-day central European community with Act I’s crumbling concrete factory a metaphor perhaps for communism’s collapse – she fears for her social standing and already has to deal with the fact that her stepdaughter is pregnant by Števa, who she does not like.
Only when Števa refuses to acknowledge his child does Martens allow her character to devolve into madness. As in all great tragedy, the audience realises immediately that her chosen course of action is wrong. From this pivotal point in Act II (here after the single interval), with growing horror, you watch as events unravel out of control so that no-one is left unaffected – even slippery Števa, as his own nuptials are compromised.
Alden and his cast’s unnerving portrayal of Janáček’s verismo tale (the programme points out how impressed he was by Cavelleria rusticana) is enhanced by Charles Edwards’ sets, his wide industrial vista of Act I becoming the vast, but enclosed, roofed front room of the Kostelnička’s house for Acts II & III, complete with faded cubist wallpaper. Within this interior’s claustrophobic atmosphere, Alden is able to keep his characters as far apart as their emotional distance. When at Act III’s climax, the all-too expected off-stage events attract the interest of the villagers, the walls and roof of the house crack apart and the outside world pours in. Perhaps here we might have an inkling of how Alden might treat Britten’s villagers in his up-coming Peter Grimes.
Eivind Gullberg Jensen also makes his notable British opera debut in the pit, securing committed and thrilling playing from the ENO orchestra. They use Charles Mackerras and John Tyrell’s edition of Janáček’s original Brno edition of the opera, getting as close as possible to Janáček’s utterly distinctive soundworld.
But the final words must go to Amanda Roocroft’s utterly fragile Jenůfa, bowed by events – Laca scarring her face at the end of Act I, losing her baby in Act II and ... well, for those who don’t know the plot I won’t reveal Act III – for most of the opera; yet, in the final scene, offering a radiance of hope that somehow sends you out uplifted. A fabulous performance in a stunning revival.
With only two performances left – don’t hesitate. Go!
- Nick Breckenfield