A fine revival of David Alden’s thought-provoking Jenůfa at English National Opera

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Janáček, Jenůfa: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera / Keri-Lynn Wilson (conductor). London Coliseum, 13.3.2024. (JR)

English National Opera’s Jenůfa © Ellie Kurttz

Director – David Alden
Assistant conductor – Nicholas Ansdell-Evans
Set designer – Charles Edwards
Costumes – Jon Morrell
Lighting designer – Adam Silverman (revived by Ian Jackson-French)
Movement director – Maxine Braham
Chorus director – Valeria Racco

Grandmother Buryja – Fiona Kimm
Kostelnička Burya – Susan Bullock
Jenůfa Jennifer Davis
Laca Klemeň – Richard Trey Smagur
Števa – John Findon
Foreman – Darren Jeffery
Jano – Julieth Lozano Rolong
Barena – Isabelle Peters
Mayor – Freddie Tong
Mayor’s wife – Madeleine Shaw
Karolka – Segomotso Shupinyaneng
Neighbour – Morag Boyle

Another splendid David Alden production at English National Opera to gladden the heart, this time a revival of Leoš Janáček’s great opera Jenůfa, the first performance of this production going right back to 2006.

Alden transposes the action successfully to a bare grey apartment which could be anywhere in the former Eastern Bloc, the Buryja family mill changing into a factory. The grandmother is a babushka, an old Russian woman watching the goings-on from her hut. The apartment contains a prominent Madonna and some broken windows and a few items of dull furniture.

Singing is impressive across the board. Young Irish soprano Jennifer Davis in the title role complements a strong, clear voice with impeccable acting skills. Her top notes are secure, her diction exemplary. Her star is rising very fast.

Jennifer Davis (Jenůfa) and Richard Trey Smagur (Laca) © Ellie Kurttz

British tenor John Findon caught my ear in Peter Grimes at ENO recently (review here) and it is good to see him in a more major role than Bob Boles; his voice is very strong indeed, and he acted the part well. American lyric tenor Richard Trey Smagur has a warm tone with plenty of volume (at well over six foot he towers over everyone) and played the role of the clumsy, gauche Laca extremely convincingly. Susan Bullock is well known on the international opera stage and shone at the top of the register, refined lower down; she acted well though I have seen many more sinister and guilt-ridden Kostelničkas, Bullock never came over as a nervous wreck. Her moving aria ‘In one moment’ as she describes her intended murder of the baby was extremely well sung.

Fiona Kimm is a stalwart of the ENO; comedic acting beyond reproach, her voice now sometimes drowned out by the orchestra. Minor roles were all taken well: in particular, South African soprano Segomotso Shupinyaneng caught the ear with her crisp, sparkling voice and winning stage presence, and Madeleine Shaw introduced plenty of humour into the grim tale, bringing to mind with both costume and movement the chickens in The Cunning Little Vixen. Darren Jeffery brought gravitas to the role of the Foreman. Colombian soprano Julieth Lozano Rolong was a sprightly Jano, nimble of action and voice.

The chorus was in fine form, and a joy to watch at all times. Costumes were spot-on in their dullness (the wedding chorus in colourful traditional costumes apart).

The orchestra was led by Benjamin Marquise Gilmore (also a Leader of the London Symphony Orchestra); his solos were admirable. All sections of the orchestra played magnificently. Canadian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson is the founder and music director of the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra and married to Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera. Wilson brought out every nuance of the score, bouncing along with the rhythmic passages, swaying gracefully with the tender sections and jabbing at the discordances when menace was called for.

Lighting was notable, particularly when the Kostelnička lit from the side bore down on her stepdaughter carrying the sleep-inducing drug, her shadow making her look three times her size.

I appreciated hearing this opera in English for a change, though there is no doubting that it really should be heard in its original language, Janáček taking so much trouble to fit the words to the notes. But hearing it in English brings some benefits (and perhaps a new audience), I learnt some small details I had missed when hearing it in Czech, even when presented with surtitles in English.

This intelligent production made one ponder the lot of women over the centuries, especially in Catholic countries, where a baby born out of wedlock meant misery, poverty and often the loss of the child. The programme contained several fascinating articles on the history of the opera and the social scene in rural Moravia. As my wife put it to me at the end of the evening, the opera is a fine advert for The Pill.

John Rhodes

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