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Jenůfa (London Coliseum)

ENO revives one of its greatest successes to close a troubled season in triumph

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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Peter Hoare as Laca and Laura Wilde in the title role of Jenůfa (ENO)
© Donald Cooper

Ignore Daniel Kramer, the new artistic director of ENO who on radio recently labelled Janáček an "obscure". Instead, be blown away by this devastatingly great account from his own company of perhaps the most heart-breaking opera of them all.

It's taken ten years for English National Opera to revive David Alden's Olivier Award-winner production of Jenůfa, and given the boss's lack of enthusiasm it'll be a good ten more before we see it again, if ever. So, with only five further performances scheduled, catch it now or live to regret it.

It's the perfect first opera for theatregoers because it tells a story that flays the mind dramatically and psychologically as well as musically. The score is lush and colourful, the characters rounded and believable, the plot scarcely bearable.

Jenůfa is courted and impregnated by the feckless Števa but is loved from afar by Laca. The latter's jealousy leads him to slash the girl's face with a knife in a desperate move to make her less appealing to her fiancé. Jenůfa's stepmother, the Kostelnička, hides the pregnant girl away to conceal her shame, then once the baby is born she makes a dreadful decision that will have shattering consequences on them all.

David Alden sets his production in an expressionistic version of some Eastern bloc country from the recent past, and in doing so he grinds visual austerity hard against Janáček's ultra-romantic score with its gorgeously orchestrated progressions of plaintive chords in haunting melodic clusters. Some of the opera's minor characters could have jumped straight out of the director's Peter Grimes—isn't that Mrs Sedley clocking in at the factory?—while Charles Edwards's deep-perspective sets hold the prospect of endless, inescapable gloom.

'Mark Wigglesworth wrings sweat and blood out of the score'

Within this framework a clutch of remarkable performances unfold under the peerless baton of ENO's outgoing music director Mark Wigglesworth. The company's fetish for casting American women alongside British men continues unabated, with Laura Wilde superbly affecting in the title role even if her voice occasionally seems a size too small for the Coliseum. Michaela Martens is the embodiment of tortured hell as her stepmother: the treacherous synapses of her baleful brain dominate Janáček's middle act. Though not a conventional diva, as a singing actress Martens provokes chills.

Nicky Spence and Peter Hoare, two tenors on sensational form, are the half-brothers Števa and Laca. The former smarms and flirts like a drunkard before cowering at the prospect of fatherhood and its attendant responsibilities; the latter is tortured by his impulsive attack on Jenůfa (which as directed here could be semi-playful, hence semi-accidental) and is desperate to love her as he should.

Wigglesworth and the ENO Orchestra wring sweat and blood out of the score, with poetic phrasing and magnificent playing from every section. Along with an impeccably cast company of secondary artists, the music ravishes the ears even as the tale rips the soul.

Alden's expertise in stage disposition is insufficiently celebrated, so let's cheer his telling use of the award-winning ENO Chorus as well as his alchemy in creating intimacy among singers on a huge stage. Indeed, with the exception of a baffling Billy Budd the American director (not to be confused with his erratic twin brother, Christopher) has been a shining beacon in ENO's recent past. With Jenůfa his flame burns at its brightest.

Jenůfa runs in repertory at the London Coliseum until 8 July.

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