WNO Jenufa review by Norman Stinchcombe


Jenůfa: Welsh National Opera at Birmingham Hippodrome ★★★★

Like all great dramatic works Janacek's Jenůfa rests on a few simple but universal truths: we hurt those we love; murder will out; to err is human, to forgive, divine. It pivots on the jealousy of disinherited Laca Klemeň who has loved his cousin Jenůfa since childhood but she, while Laca served in the army, fell for his handsome mill-owning half-brother Števa, a shallow seducer. She is now pregnant by him, a fact she is keeping secret, naively hoping that he will marry her. In this Moravian village – dark and forbidding in Katie Mitchell's austere production – this will lead to infanticide, despair and finally redemption.

Janacek's wonderful score makes the moral transformation believable in a taut, sharply etched performance by the WNO orchestra under Wyn Davies, although he let the orchestra sometimes overpower the singers in Act 1. Every key transformative moment worked its magic: the opening xylophone ostinato rattling in imitation of the mill wheel; the orchestral blast of icy wind as the step-mother returns from drowning Jenůfa's baby; and the blazing major key radiance making Jenůfa's forgiveness of her utterly convincing – "Even on her, the saviour's gaze will light!". This was one of many fine moments for Tanya Hurst's tender, vulnerable Jenůfa making a credible journey from ingenue to maturity.

Laca is a tricky role – alienating our sympathy after jealously slashing Jenůfa's cheek to make her unattractive to his rival – but Peter Berger's ardent tenor lent sincerity to his repentance and gained our sympathy. None for Rhodri Prys Jones's swaggering Števa who rightly slinks off ostracized. The evening was crowned by Czech singer Eliška Weissová as Jenůfa's widowed stepmother, known by her title Kostelnička (church warden). Sometimes reductively played as an ogre, Weissová gave her fall from grace – the village's embodiment of wisdom and moral authority to murderess – tragic status. Janacek gives her dramatically crucial moments which Weissová seized. Trembling with terror she is pursued by the demons of guilt for her crime. In her confession of she secedes moral authority to Jenůfa who bids her rise: "There's been enough humiliation and torture already." Last, but never least, the WNO Chorus; as always strong, characterful and versatile.

Norman Stinchcombe

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