United Kingdom Janáček, Jenůfa: Soloists, Orchestra of Scottish Opera, The Chorus of Jenůfa / Stuart Stratford (conductor), Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 9.4.2015 (SRT)
Jenůfa – Lee Bisset
Kostelnička – Kathryn Harries
Laca – Peter Wedd
Števa – Sam Furness
Grandmother Burya – Anna-Marie Owens
Director – Annilese Miskimmon
Designer – Nicky Shaw
Lighting Designer – Mark Jonathan
Despite a lifetime’s opera-going and a well-worn scepticism for lots of aspects of musical life, Janáček’s Jenůfa is one of those pieces that still has an undiluted power to knock me sideways. The power of its themes and the immediacy of its characters moves me to (at least) the brink of tears every time I see it, not just for the poignancy of the fate of Jenůfa and her stepmother, but for the redemptive grandeur of the final scene – not to mention the viscerally dramatic music Janáček composes to accompany it all. It’s a piece that has the power to stun and, done with even the slightest hint of integrity, it can hit the audience right between the eyes. Happily, so it proved tonight.
Nominally, Annilese Miskimmon’s production sets the action in Ireland during the 1918 conscription crisis – an appropriate enough translation to another society where women have a lower status and strong Catholic faith can prove a stranglehold – but there is barely any hint of this in the staging itself and it certainly doesn’t get in the way. So you can easily imagine yourself in Janacek’s Moravia, and I nearly always did. I liked the clarity of Nicky Shaw’s sets, with the bluff exterior of the mill cottage and the interiors which were both neat and claustrophobic, though the Kostelnička’s terror in the final sequence of the second act was a little flat, with the open window a mere gentle whisper which fluttered the net curtains. Likewise, there was unavoidable bathos when the blazing final duet was accompanied with something as pedestrian as pouring a cup of tea. Elsewhere, though, Miskimmon directed the singers very successfully, underlining Laca’s status as an outsider in the first act, while giving the Kostelnička just enough histrionics while making her still sympathetic. The crowd scenes, too, were organic and folksy, especially the male chorus in the first act.
The singing cast were also the finest that Scottish Opera have assembled for a while. The two tenors impressed me particularly. Sam Furness was a skittish, happy-go-lucky Števa who couldn’t come to terms with the consequences of his actions, while Peter Wedd, the strongest link in the cast, was a volcanic Laca, encompassing all the character’s contradictions with power and conviction, as well as intrinsically exciting musicality. Lee Bisset took an act to bed in and was occasionally challenged on top, but her Jenůfa was rich and creamy, as lyrical as this character should be. Kathryn Harries cut a great stage presence as the Kostelnička, dominating the action of the second act and eliciting sympathy in the third, but her voice was thin and unconvincing, sadly missing the great climaxes for which this character is responsible.
Despite a sometimes muddy xylophone in the first act, the orchestra sounded great in this brilliantly constructed score, and Stuart Stratford controlled the unfolding psychodrama like a tightly coiled spring, spilling over into a glorious peroration in Jenůfa and Laca’s final duet. This is by some margin the best show Scottish Opera have done for a while, and deserves to be seen.
Jenůfa is at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, on Saturday 11th April and then at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre on 16th and 18th April.