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Jenůfa (Opera North - tour)

Janáček's opera hits home in a strongly cast, musically thrilling revival

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Susan Bickley as the Kostelnička in Jenůfa (Opera North)
© Richard H Smith

The gestation of Janáček's first opera in 1904 caused him no end of headaches, but modern audiences needn't fear that it'll do the same to them. Jenůfa fuses rich, redolent music with a compelling narrative into a work that grips, touches and appals. More than Carmen or La bohème or The Magic Flute it's the perfect first opera, and in a staging as fluent and emotionally naked as this 20-year-old Opera North production by Tom Cairns it will convert anyone who's hesitated to sample the lyric stage.

The libretto, which the composer himself fashioned from a play by Gabriela Preissovà, is stark and dark. While pregnant by the feckless Števa, Jenůfa is disfigured in a fit of jealousy by his half-brother Laca. When Števa rejects her, her stepmother, known as the Kostelnička (a title that approximates to ‘church sacristan'), concludes that there is only one way to save the younger woman's reputation. She embarks upon an unspeakable course of action whose consequence will be as catastrophic as it is inevitable.

Janáček's score is a stew of Czech colours and folk-style dance rhythms, and under Serbian conductor Aleksandar Markovič the Orchestra of Opera North captures every fleck of its flamboyance and febrile impetus. Occasionally he allows orchestral waves to flood the singers, but such moments of imbalance are offset by the sheer excitement of it all. And it's a showcase for the company's exceptional chorus.

Opera North has assembled a cast of rare quality and idiomatic command. Swedish lyric soprano Yiva Kihlberg sings the opera's standard English translation without a trace of accent and inhabits Jenůfa's misadventures with a harrowing conviction. There's a steadfastness to her tone that's completely right for the character, and in a deeply considered performance she blends dignity with vulnerability.

Two of our finest young tenors, David Butt Philip and Ed Lyon, are no less engaged as Laca and Števa, their contrasted personalities vividly etched, and there are distinguished contributions from Elizabeth Sikora as the Grandmother to all three of them, and from Dean Robinson as the mill foreman.

Jenůfa act one (Opera North)
© Richard C Smith

The ineluctable character, though, is the Kostelnička, and as Susan Bickley portrays her she will haunt your dreams. It's the finest performance I've seen from this supremely protean mezzo-soprano - and that's saying something. First bullying and controlling, later tortured and broken, Bickley's matriarchal monster dominates the opera as she should (its original Czech title translates as ‘Her Stepmother') and dredges the dilemma of her second-act soliloquy from her very entrails. It's shattering.

The angular slopes of Tom Cairns's crooked-house designs are robust and probably good for touring, but they're less evocative than the music suggests and in act two they fail to solve a textual imperative involving a locked door. However, the lighting of his gauze walls and the tell-tale projections on his painted front-drop (Wolfgang Göbbel's work revived here by Mike Lock) have a rare impact.

This Jenůfa from Opera North captures all the punching brilliance of a wonderful opera and deserves to find big new audiences as it heads off on tour from its Leeds launch pad. Don't even think of missing it.

Jenůfa tours to Newcastle, Manchester and Nottingham until 18 November.