ENO’s Jenůfa Presents Human Tragedy that is Out of the Ordinary

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Janáček, Jenůfa: Soloists, Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Stephen Harris), Orchestra of the English National Opera / Mark Wigglesworth (conductor). London Coliseum, London, 23.6.2016. (MB)

ENO Jenufa: Soraya Mafi, Natalie Herman, Laura Wilde and Peter Hoare (c) Donald Cooper.
ENO Jenufa: Soraya Mafi, Natalie Herman, Laura Wilde and Peter Hoare (c) Donald Cooper.

Grandmother Buryja – Valerie Reid
Kostelnička Buryja – Michaela Martens
Jenůfa – Laura Wilde
Laca Klemen – Peter Hoare
Števa Buryja – Nicky Spence
Foreman, Mayor – Graeme Danby
Jano – Sarah Labiner
Barena – Claire Mitcher
Mayor’s Wife – Natalie Herman
Karolka – Soraya Mafi
Neighbour – Morag Boyle
Villager – Claire Pendleton

David Alden (director)
Charles Edwards (set designer)
Jon Morrell (costumes)
Adam Silverman (lighting)
Claire Gaskin (choreography, revived by Maxine Braham)

This now seems as though it took place in another world – because it did, the night of the referendum. I might have preferred to hear Jenůfa in Czech, but who cares? Although the words – excellently translated, insofar as I am competent to judge, a considerable ‘insofar’, although compared to my countrymen and, to a lesser extent, countrywomen… – sometimes sound in themselves a little odd in English, they and their meaning were powerfully, indeed viscerally conveyed. (I know that ‘visceral’ is a much overused word in such contexts, but here it certainly was the mot juste.) Moreover, hearing the words in English certainly had the advantage for a non-Czech speaker – my fault, I know – of underlining when words, especially but not only when repeated, took on not only vocal but orchestral life of their own as speech rhythms (even if the speech rhythms were thus a bit peculiar!) That cavil-which-is-not-a-cavil will be really my only attempt at finding one, for this was magnificent, a reproach to all those who have wished ENO ill, and who, in certain case, continue to do so.

The (relatively few) reservations I had about David Alden’s production last time around in 2009 have either evaporated or, seemingly, been dealt with in revision. Perhaps it was as much a matter of the outstanding performances we saw on stage – although they were pretty good too in 2009. I am not entirely sure which, since it is always difficult, no impossible, to remember precisely what happened when, so shall not offer detailed comparisons. At any rate, the shift from Czech Hardy-land – I was put in mind of Boulez’s less-than-favourable description of earlier Janáček as ‘Dvořák in the country’, thereby exalting the late works to which he came to, well, late – to a more overtly, at least to us rootless cosmopolitans, vicious urban-ish setting, perhaps holding something in common with Christoph Marthaler’s Paris Katya Kabanova. The people are poor and they live in a small, ‘tight-knit’ community, with all the problems that brings: that is what is important, not whether we see lots of wheat sheaves or whatever. Indeed, a sense of the bucolic might be argued to distract from the tragedy at hand; that is certainly given no chance of happening here.

Charles Edwards’s brilliant designs, Jon Morrell’s costumes, Adam Silverman’s costumes, the choreography of Claire Gaskin, here revived by Maxine Braham – all these combine with Alden’s razor-sharp focus upon human tragedy to present something out of the normal (and that is before we even come to the music). Walls close in, the storm intervenes, worlds (visual) collide, often with the greatest physical menace. The Mayor’s Wife outfit and make-up are just as much part of the drama, as the terrifying rattling on the shutters of the Kostelnička’s house and the eventual smashing of the glass. Gesamtkunstwerk is a word so divested of meaning, historical or contemporary, that it is perhaps beyond salvation, but if salvation there might be – and there is precious little chance of that dramatically – this would offer unimpeachable witness. If I find some of the deviations from the naturalistic a little peculiar in themselves, they serve that greater purpose. Indeed, when considering that, I recalled Alden’s brilliant ENO Peter Grimes. I was less troubled there by such matters, perhaps because I like the work ‘itself’ less. That, though, should not be the point, and the greater dramatic point of small-community, small-minded bigotry punches one in the gut just as it did in Britten’s opera. The advance of the chorus, the village folk gunning for their primitive, punitive, perverted ‘morality’ will long remain in the mind; so will the cowardly attempt at rescue of a broken Števa. Here, wall-hugging, often rightly derided, had justification, the desire both to escape and to self-incarcerate inescapably drawn to the fore.

I cannot recall hearing a finer performance from the ENO Orchestra. Mark Wigglesworth’s conducting – he must be brought back as Music Director, with a settlement for the company to match – was the most intense I can recall in this work, perhaps in any Janáček opera. It grabbed one by the throat, just like the work of a great conductor in Wozzeck, and never relinquished its grip. It was not all fierceness, though; the open, sympathetic humanity of Janáček’s score shone through all the more warmly in the context of such an agón. The pounding repeated chords at the second half registered all the more strongly for the turmoil both onstage and in the world outside; but they were the orchestra’s and Wigglesworth’s too. Biting, ferocious, generative: they were everything a musico-dramatic prelude should and must be. As the lights flickered in duet with the xylophone, a world internal and external shook. Wagner has no monopoly in operatic renewal of Attic tragedy: this was a communal and, yes, a political rite.

That warm sympathy was equally apparent in Laura Wilde’s lovely account of the title role. This was no stock object of sympathy, of circumstance; we experienced her agonies, but as an agent too, albeit, like us, an agent constrained, (near-)destroyed by her ‘community’. Michaela Martens, almost the only returning member of the 2009 cast, again presented a woman of strength as well as goodness, that strength smashed to pieces – how broken she looked and behaved in the third act! – by what she had done. Vocally, she soared; dramatically, in the very best sense, she plummeted. Valerie Reid was similarly broken by that stage as Grandmother Buryja. She intrigued, as the finest performances of this curious role will: we knew that she and whatever mistakes she had made were fundamental to the tragedy unfolding, without ever quite knowing what they had been. We guessed, though, thus making us complicit with the chorus of terror. Its magnificent contribution throughout, beyond ‘visceral’, if something can be so, was yet another standing rebuke to the encircling vultures: ironically so, given its members roles as just that.

Peter Hoare’s Laca took us on as moving a ‘journey’, with apologies for the cliché, as that of Jenůfa; youthful (in knowing excess?) silliness was transformed into diffident, difficult maturity. I was quite unprepared for the violence of Nicky Spence’s first-act Števa. Again, being rid of the bucolic doubtless helped, but what generally comes across as winning charm was here a brazen display of power from the start, somewhat tempered, eventually, by Jenůfa’s intervention towards the end of the act, but only somewhat. That rendered his ghost-like appearance and disappearance all the more terrifying in the final act. Sarah Labiner’s splendidly boyish Jano, Soraya Mafi’s spirited Karolka, Graeme Danby’s skilfully differentiated roles Natalie Herman’s nasty-piece-of-work Mayor’s Wife: they and all the rest contributed to a true company performance. Even in, particularly in, the direst of tragedy, we find our catharsis somehow.

Mark Berry

Leave a Comment