Jenùfa - ENO, 19 June 2009
Thanks to ENO's generous ticket offer, I took in this last-but-one performance of Jenùfa for just £20, my bottom nestled in the unaccustomed luxury of a side stalls seat. With armrests! And legroom! The offer seems to have worked its magic - stalls and balcony (£5) were packed. Evidence that ENO really need to rethink their regular pricing, which sees front and centre seats selling like hot cakes however dire the production. Charging a bit more for these choice seats and a bit less for the others might help more cash-strapped punters to find their way to the Coliseum.
David Alden switches Jenùfa from a nineteenth century Moravian village to a grungy Eastern Bloc setting, popping in a few anachronistic details like a gleaming British motorbike. Like any update, it brings us closer to a world we can understand. But more importantly here, it makes it clear that the Kostelnička's crime is rooted in something more personal than the shame of a child born out of wedlock. This is an open-minded society where a couple of good-time girls (in nineties minis and crop tops) can mingle with the regular villagers. What drives the Kostelnička to infanticide here is not just social disapprobation, but the fear of divine judgement, honed by her own sad history. Her religious convictions border on the manic, underlined by an obsession with prayer and god-shop knick-knacks.
Michaela Martens, in a classic piece of only-in-teh-opera casting, was probably the youngest person on stage, so her singing was fresher and less matronly than the Kostelničkas we usually hear. Though formidable, she's a less domineering presence too.
So the story inevitably focuses on Jenùfa herself. Her painful decline through rejection, disfigurement and betrayal was unerringly charted by Amanda Roocroft. Her singing may not be technically flawless, but dramatically her performance was utterly and heartbreakingly convincing. As the walls of the set brilliantly split asunder when the the Kostelnička's shocking crime is exposed, so Roocroft made us understand that Jenùfa's inner world is breaking apart.
The cast were directed with an attention to detail that means that every single character rings true, and not just while they're singing. Tom Randle's Števa may be vain and cowardly, but we can also see the fun-loving charm that attracts Jenùfa to him. Similarly, Robert Brubaker's first act Laca is an irritating oaf who thoroughly justifies Jenùfa's rejection - only at her lowest point does his steadfastness and sincerity show through.
Alden's only failing is his weakness for misplaced humour. Janáček's tale of infanticide and betrayal is fatally short on natural laughs. But superimposing a joke or two doesn't improve it. The Grandmother was beautifully played by Susan Gorton, but why does she need to be got up as a tubby Rosa Klebb? Similarly the Mayor and his wife - straight out of some DDR musical comedy - raised quite inappropriate giggles simply by walking on stage.
Musically, Eivind Gullberg Jensen's ENO debut was a total triumph. The orchestra sounded wonderful, possibly the best I've ever heard them. There was an inevitability to the tempos that made everything flow naturally, and Jensen made the difficult job of balancing solo voices against Janáček's dense orchestrations seem a piece of cake. Never once were singers overwhelmed. The chorus lost their way here and there. Like their fuzzy diction, it provided further evidence of a gradual slide in standards over the last couple of years.
ENO are increasingly supplanting hard-sell treasures like this and the recent Partenope with seat-filling tosh. It's a trend in desperate need of reversal, and one that a further prompt revival of this production would address.