Welsh National Opera's Jenufa


Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

For all its near quarter-century of existence, Katie Mitchell's production for Welsh National Opera of Janacek's Jenufa continues to pack a powerful punch. Perhaps illegitimate birth is no scandal in the western world today, but many of us will remember the stigma that was until recently attached to it, and the impact of the sweet Jenufa's shame upon her immediate family and ultimately her Moravian village is shattering.
Mitchell's production is ruthless in its clarity, aided by Nigel J Edwards' stark lighting design and the stark simplicity of Vicki Mortimer's sets. Add to this the vigour and movement of the remarkable WNO Chorus whenever the villagers assemble, and then the solitariness of the principals, locked in their own troubles; the result is emotionally overpowering.
Elizabeth Llewellyn, the Jenufa pregnant by her cousin Steva, has a wonderfully varied range of delivery, from subtle half-tones to full-throated outbursts of the passion the character so often denies herself. Her song to the night was so sensitively accompanied by the WNO Orchestra (David Adams' eloquent extended violin solo) under Tomas Hanus, as was later her Hail, Holy Queen to the Virgin Mary.
Steva cares nothing for Jenufa and their child, throwing money at them instead of protection and love; Rhodri Prys Jones swaggers convincingly in the part. His half-brother Laca adores Jenufa, and ultimately wins her, and Peter Berger portrays him endearingly. The duet in which he and Jenufa eventually smile upon their future together was almost Pucciniesque in its resonances.
But the triumph of the evening was Eliska Weissova's as the Kostelnicka, Jenufa's sacristan stepmother, who, to preserve her own status, drowns Jenufa's baby. This is a huge part, demanding such a command of range and timbre, and Weissova delivered the goods magnificently. The final vignette, a WNO inspiration, will never leave the memory, though I seem to remember it slightly longer in previous performances.
Tomas Hanus had preceded the curtain with a moving dedication to humanity. After conducting such an engaging performance of Janacek's powerful score, he returned onstage, a Ukrainian streamer dropping from his breast-pocket, requesting us to stand a moment in silence for the Ukraine. We all did, and some of us were in tears.
Christopher Morley

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