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Jenufa (Tour - Milton Keynes)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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Nicholas Lehman’s touring production of Jenufa, revived by Daniel Dooner for Glyndebourne on Tour, is a richly textured, emotionally complex piece of theatre. The staging is superb, the singing powerful and sustained, and the set design creatively audacious.

Tobias Hoheisel is to be commended on his design, for with great economy he conveys a great deal of information about the rustic peasantry, the moral austerity, and the sacrificial offering at the heart of this opera. The lighting is simple and bare: the second act darkening incrementally as the tragedy unfolds. The staging is equally stripped bare, with characters striking postures and holding them just long enough for them to have an emotional power in and of themselves. This gives the opera a strangely static feel, a feeling that is amplified by the painterly design of the sets. The tilted angles and perspectival foreshortening and protractions of the sets lend the opera a terrifying vertiginous feeling that accentuates the musical and spiritual journey. This is especially clear in the second act when the Kostelnicka’s judgement is so searingly flawed, and she slumps emotionally wrecked against the door, itself awry, foreshadowing the upheaval of the denouement in the third act.

The underlying theme of the opera is the redemptive power of love, and the suffering that comes from corrupted love, self-love, flawed love. The inadequacies of human love can rarely have been so pitilessly demonstrated. But this is an opera in which love triumphs over the shortcomings of its misguided expressions, in which forgiveness is the route to grace. This is an opera that posits that love divine can indeed excel all loves and redeem us for a life of shared happiness. Love transforms the unspeakable into the ineffable and the transformation is almost unbearably moving. It is an opera then which has something profound and sacred to offer its audience, and however harrowing the journey, the rewards are reverential.

It is an opera which offers immense challenges to its cast, and here they rise to those challenges with inspiring energy. Giselle Allen gives a fervent account of Jenufa, singing with great emotional colour and depth. Her prayer to the Virgin Mary to protect her child closely followed by her aria upon hearing of the death of her baby is genuinely moving, and in the final act, when she and Laca (admirably performed by Peter Wedd) achieve the ultimate expression of selfless love, understanding and forgiveness, their performance is both humbling and uplifting.

Praise too for Anne Mason’s rendition of the Kostelnicka: fierce and unblenching, she takes us on a heartbreaking emotional journey with impeccable sincerity. Her role calls for immense stamina, finesse, virtuosity, and emotional resourcefulness. On all four counts she gives a truly outstanding performance.

Robin Ticciati’s conducting is sensitive to the emotional intensity of Janacek’s opera and he rises amply to the challenge of bringing out the tenderness and hope that resides within the sacramentally tragic score.

All in all it was a complete triumph, a very special evening: powerful, compelling, absolutely riveting.

- Claire Steele


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