An Outstanding, Powerful Jenůfa at Grange Park Opera

13/06/2017

Janáček, Jenůfa: Soloists and Chorus of Grange Park Opera, BBC Concert Orchestra / William Lacey (conductor), Grange Park Opera, West Horsley Place, Epsom Road, West Horsley, 11.6.2017. (VV)

Jenufa – Leos Janacek - Grange Park Opera at West Horsley Place - 11th June 2017, Conductor – William Lacey, Director – Katie Mitchell, Revival Director – Robin Tebbutt, Designer – Vicki Mortimer, Lighting Design – Paul Keogan, Jenufa: Natalya Romaniw, Kostelnicka: Susan Bullock,

Susan Bullock (Kostelnička) & Natalya Romaniw (Jenůfa) (c) Robert Workman

Cast:

Jenůfa – Natalya Romaniw
Števa – Nicky Spence
Kostelnička – Susan Bullock
Laca – Peter Hoare
Mayor – Jihoon Kim
Grandmother – Anne-Marie Owens
Starek – Harry Thatcher
Mayor’s Wife – Hanna-Liisa Kirchin
Karolka – Heather Ireson
Barena – Alexandra Lowe
Jano – Eleanor Garside
Pastuchyna – Amy Lyddon

Production:

Originates from Welsh National Opera (1998)

Director – Katie Mitchell
Revival Director – Robin Tebbutt
Designer – Vicki Mortimer
Original Lighting Designer – Nigel Edwards
Lighting Designer – Paul Keogan
Original Choreographer – Struan Leslie
Revival Choreography – Lucy Cullingford

This production of Jenůfa demonstrates the enduring validity of WNO’s original 1998 directorial vision, and the insight of the team in charge of its revival at Grange Park Opera.  Their perceptive reading of Janáček’s libretto and music, and the care put into conveying it through every element of the production render it compelling.

Jenůfa’s combination of visceral and intellectual impact reflects, amongst other things, Janáček’s rooting of the action in a specific place – a Moravian village – where he unleashes universal forces.  The production’s updating of the action from the turn of the 20th century to the 1930s helps remove any potential for folksy or sentimental interpretations, plunging the viewer into the thick of the psychological drama.

The directors and their teams make themselves faithful interpreters of the composer’s musical and dramatic intentions (known to us through his own writing) by throwing into sharp relief the concept of inside vs. outside which permeates the text and the score.  The sets being confined to interiors highlight the community’s invasion of the protagonists’ innermost spaces: not only the intimate ones of the homes and of couples’ evolving relationships, but also and above all, that of the mind – as this is an opera in which tragedy is triggered when uncontainable inner feelings collide with the external world’s rigidity.

Famously, a hiatus of nearly five years separates the composition of Act I from that of Acts II and III.  The difference between the two halves is generally ascribed to Janáček’s adoption of his “speech-melody” style in the intervening period.  Whilst this is correct, it also makes dramatic and musical sense for Act I to consist of set numbers and ensembles, and for the protagonists to sing independently of each other in Acts II and III, their utterances linked and underlined by the orchestra, as the main characters evolve from socially constructed personas towards individuation.  In his operas, Janáček actually used only in rare cases his notebook records of Czech speech in musical notation (“speech melodies”).  However, as Tyrrell, Štědroň and Kundera, amongst others, have pointed out, his practice of distinguishing the impact of emotional states on people’s speech – on rhythms, inflections and stress patterns – trained his sensitivity to render those states in all their fluidity in his music.  Their truthful depiction, akin to Muybridge photographic studies of motion, is at the heart of the power of Jenůfa, especially in Acts II and III.

The fulfilment on stage of that dramatic and musical vision hinges on the coherence of the production team’s values – from the direction to the sets, lighting, costume and choreography – and of the singers, orchestra and conductor’s abilities.  Spectators at Grange Park Opera are fortunate to be witnessing that coherence – and to be touched by its result.

Natalya Romaniw makes her role debut as a heart-rending Jenůfa, after her Tatyana in Garsington’s Eugene Onegin and Liza in Opera Holland Park’s Queen of Spades in 2016.  She is the ideal eponymous heroine: exuding the youth, wilfulness and vulnerability of the girl infatuated with her cousin Števa as the curtain opens, and moving through suffering and compassion to maturity and profound love.  Romaniw already possesses the vocal mastery and acting skills to make you forget the technical feats behind the limpid notes, beautiful lines and darker tones of shock and grief.

Susan Bullock debuts the complex role of Kostelnička.  The fact that the Czech title of the opera (like the play by Preissová on which it is based) is Her Stepdaughter reveals the centrality of the stepmother-daughter relationship.  The character being known only by her social role – Kostelnička means ‘sextoness’ – foreshadows the possibility that it will prove too rigid to withstand her fear of disgrace and loss of social status for herself and her daughter, should the community discover Jenůfa’s illegitimate child.  Bullock’s Kostelnička is the authoritative figure of Act I who disintegrates under conflicting pressures until she commits a heinous crime in Act II, only to be further crushed by guilt.  Her moral authority was conferred by an outside agent, the Church; her stepdaughter’s comes from an evolving inner strength.  Bullock convincingly inhabits the character through the role’s exceptionally wide vocal range and shifting tonalities, until her last notes come to rest on a C-major chord, as Kostelnička reconciles herself with the expiation of her crime and with Jenůfa.

Peter Hoare makes a compelling Laca, which he sang also for ENO last year.  In a fit of accumulated resentment and jealousy for Števa, his half-brother, he slashes the cheek of the young woman, Jenůfa, he has loved since childhood.  He is touchingly believable as the man capable of that explosive fit in Act I, of contrition, tenderness and true love in Acts II and III, and of his promise to Jenůfa to love her and stand by her always, beyond the curtain’s close.  Hoare’s voice rings with brilliance, the tone colours deftly painting the emotions.  The chemistry between him and Romaniw makes for a poignant couple.  In the end, both are capable of forgiveness and love not because of their suffering per se but because they have grown to understand everyone’s – including their own – part in the events.  They alone break the fetters of the community’s shallow conventional morality, thanks to a deeper understanding of reality attained through love.

Nicky Spence was Števa for ENO in 2016 and takes up the role again here.  Like the others in the central quartet, he is an exceptional singer and actor.  His Števa is an immature and irresponsible young man incapable of rising to a real challenge.  The idea of ‘inside versus outside’ permeating the opera transpires repeatedly from his utterances and deeds.  For all his apparent self-importance, he is the coward who abandons Jenůfa and her baby, frightened by the ugly scar on her face, while, all along, the orchestra underscores her inner beauty and Laca sees her as ever more beautiful.

The supporting cast of soloists and chorus lend thorough verisimilitude to the external world and the protagonists’ responses to it.  Anne-Marie Owens as Grandmother Burya, Harry Thatcher as the mill foreman and Jihoon Kim as the mayor stand out.

The BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by William Lacey, fulfils superbly the many roles given it by Janáček’s score.  Tension is sustained from the first bars of the overture and the appearance of the recurring waterwheel motif.  On the one hand, the voices float on the unifying current created by the instruments; on the other, the orchestra enables the voices’ individuality.  A violin may echo one voice; a horn underlines the horror of Kostelnička’s self-deception; two protagonists’ utterances may be linked by instrumental harmonies… More than in most operas, in Jenůfa the orchestra is often called upon to perform a role akin to that of the chorus in Greek tragedy.

Congratulations to Grange Park Opera on this outstanding revival – and on achieving the opening of its new opera house in the woods within a mere eleven months of commencing building.

Valeria Vescina

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