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Review: Jenůfa (West Horsley Place)

Grange Park Opera revives WNO's long-lived Katie Mitchell production

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Natalya Romaniw as Jenůfa and Peter Hoare as Laca in Jenůfa (GPO)
© Robert Workman

I could start here:

'You'll never have heard an all-British cast sing this of all operas so wonderfully, and in the original Czech too...'

...or here:

'The miracle of Janáček's orchestration was beautifully realised by the BBC Concert Orchestra under William Lacey...'

...or here:

'The final scene between Jenůfa and Laca had a tenderness that was beyond devastating...'

...but all I really want to say is wow and thank you. Mop me up with a squeegee and send me home. It's one of the great 20th-century operas and Grange Park Opera has pulled in some proper muscle to do it justice.

Jenůfa, the stepdaughter of widowed harridan and church denizen the Kostelnička, has a baby out of wedlock by her feckless fiancé, Števa. He spurns his responsibilities because Laca, his brother, has disfigured the girl in a fit of jealousy and he no longer desires her. Laca's remorse, the Kostelnička's unspeakable crime and Jenůfa's forgiveness are brought together in an overwhelming third act.

I've long maintained that Janáček's masterpiece is the perfect first choice for opera virgins, so hie thee to Horsley and find out why. Katie Mitchell's 1998 production for Welsh National Opera still packs stomach punches even though the director would hardly be this straightforward nowadays (but she's so protean that who knows?). It has been confidently revived by Robin Tebbutt and the players inhabit Vicki Mortimer's claustrophobic indoor spaces as though they'd lived there all their lives.

'GPO's new theatre has rustled up its first triumph'

And what players they are. I use the word advisedly, for they act as mesmerisingly as they sing. This is the best ensemble cast I've heard in Jenůfa apart from the late Jiří Bělohlávek's all-Czech-plus-Karita-Mattila special in 2016, and that was only a concert. Here, I bled as Natalya Romaniw's Jenůfa bled, danced as Nicky Spence's Števa danced, howled my empathy with Peter Hoare's remorseful Laca. And I watched in horror as Susan Bullock lived through the Kostelnička's poisoned dilemma.

Hoare and Spence also graced the last revival of ENO's very different Jenůfa, and will reunite next month at Opera Holland Park for the same composer's Kat'a Kabanova. They more than live up to their Janáček credentials here and are joined by two equally outstanding colleagues in Romaniw and Bullock. Factor in tremendous work from Anne Marie Owens as the Grandmother, Harry Thatcher as the Foreman, Jihoon Kim as the Mayor and Heather Ireson as Karolka, Števa's replacement fiancée, and GPO's new theatre has rustled up its first triumph.

Mitchell's second-act concept seems dated, its homely intimacy too cosy for the music's emotional extremes, and the ensemble scenes are wilfully cramped by a compact playing space that betrays the production's touring origins. Neither was I convinced by a closing coup de théâtre that plays synthetically on our emotions. As if the score needed such assistance - particularly given William Lacey's sensitive account of it.

Incidentally, both here and in Tosca the BBC Concert Orchestra played like lions. Opera suits them; some other summer festival should secure their services pronto, because from next year onwards GPO will have the ENO Orchestra in its pit. Now there's a talking point.

Jenůfa runs in repertory at Grange Park Opera, West Horsley Place, until 8 July.