Sunday, 22 March 2009

Jenůfa, English National Opera, 21 March 2009

The Coliseum

Grandmother Buryja – Susan Gorton
Kostelnička Buryja – Michaela Martens
Jenůfa – Amanda Roocroft
Laca Klemen – Robert Brubaker
Števa Buryja – Tom Randle
Foreman – Iain Paterson
Jano – Julia Sporsén
Barena – Claire Mitcher
Mayor – Peter Kestner
Mayor’s wife – Susanna Tudor-Thomas
Karolka – Mairéad Buicke
Neighbour – Morag Boyle
Villager – Lyn Cook

David Alden (director)
Charles Edwards (set designer)
Jean-Marc Puissant (associate set designer)
Jon Morrell (costumes)
Adam Silverman (lighting)
Jon Clark (revival lighting)
Claire Gaskin (choreographer)

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Merry)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Eivind Gullberg Jensen (conductor)

Having grown so used to disappointments in the opera house, the recent nadir having been Covent Garden’s Flying Dutchman, what a relief it was to encounter such a triumph, on the last night of its all too short run at the Coliseum. Let me get the odd gripe out of the way first. The English translation was, even of its kind, inadequate. Even with a better version, one would have missed the sound of Czech, its speech rhythms so fundamental to Janáček’s vision. It is testimony to the overall quality of the performance, however, that I soon ceased to care. And there were a few oddities about David Alden’s production. Some aspects of the updating to post-war Eastern Europe work better than others. The tarting up of the girls of the town – this does not seem to be even a modern rural community – is probably overdone. With the exception of the dowdier Jenůfa – she should have been a teacher, as Grandmother Buryja tells her – they all look like prostitutes. Perhaps a point is being made here concerning moral hypocrisy but there ought to have been better ways to do so. Nor did I understand why when, in the second act, Jenůfa prays to the Virgin Mary, she does not face the statue the production has provided for. It is not as if any point seemed to be made about turning away. The mayor and his wife seemed oddly portrayed in the final act, as though they really were part of some rural backwater; their caricatured vulgarity detracted from rather than intensified the drama. Laughter does not seem an appropriate reaction to what is taking place here.

Otherwise, Alden’s production did a great deal to heighten the impact of Janáček’s searing drama. The updating is not strictly necessary, of course, but it was a relief generally to be spared that folksiness which briefly and jarringly intruded upon the third act. The shame of unmarried motherhood persisted long into the second half of the twentieth-century, although I wondered whether Eastern Europe – Czechoslovakia, I presume – was really the best location. The stifling conformism of Western post-war petit bourgeois society, the paradaisical 1950s so beloved of the Daily Mail and ‘conservative social commentators’ – try as I might, I cannot quite bring myself to provide a link to the humourless bigotry of Melanie Phillips – might have been a better target, although perhaps that would have been considered a shift too far. At any rate, the period might have given hypocritical moralisers de nos jours a well-needed jolt.(Feel free to substitute something more appropriate for ‘jolt’.) The morality of the mob was frighteningly conveyed, both visually and chorally, in the final act, all the more so when one knew how ‘fun-loving’ it had previously seemed. Such a gentle age...

Musically, things were better still. I am not sure that I have ever heard the ENO orchestra on better form. This might have been a top-flight international orchestra, boasting considerable depth of tone and dramatic versatility. Special mention should go to leader, Janice Graham, whose crucial solos were well-nigh perfect, reminding us of at least the hope, however distant it might seem, of redemption. Clearly the orchestra was inspired, as it should have been, by the musical direction of Eivind Gullberg Jensen, who would in no sense be embarrassed by comparison with Bernard Haitink or Sir Charles Mackerras. Ever-responsive to the shifting demands of the score, there was true harshness, though never of the easily applied variety, to Jensen’s reading. The more Romantic passages were never unambiguously so, with the possible exception of the conclusion – although here, given what had happened, one could hardly forget. There was not one occasion on which I thought a transition hurried or a tempo-choice questionable. Orchestral balances, the opening brass excepted, were expertly handled too. This was my first encounter with Jensen’s work; I trust that it will not be my last.

Jenůfa really seems to be Amanda Roocroft’s role. Dramatically credible, infinitely touching, almost invariably secure of tone, I could hardly believe this was the same singer I had seen a few years ago as Tatiana at Covent Garden. Where sometimes the Kostelnička might cast her daughter-in-law into the dramatic shadows, one never forgot here that the opera bears the name of its true heroine. Only if it is understood thus does the opera offer any true hope at all. That said, Michaela Martens was simply stunning as the Kostelnička. Less forbidding than one might expect, this was a compassionate woman throughout, driven by appalling circumstances to infanticide. Whatever the horrors of her deed, one never ceased to empathise with her predicament. The guilt it had imposed upon her by the beginning of the third act was almost overwhelming, even when one looked at her, let alone heard her. Susan Gorton offered a nicely observed grandmother, whilst Mairéad Buicke was a splendidly ghastly Karolka. Števa got what he deserved there. In that role, Tom Randle gave an all-encompassing performance. His stage and vocal alcohol-enhanced bravado in the first act prepared the way with utter credibility for the squirming weakling of the third. One could understand why all the girls wanted him – and not just for his money – but equally one could feel relieved that Jenůfa found Laca instead. Robert Brubaker’s portrayal of Laca was equally fine, movingly alert both to his essential simplicity and the somewhat paradoxical attendant complexities of his reactions. His journey from lovestruck petulance to true nobility of spirit was powerfully conveyed.

This performance’s signal achievement was that not a single member of the audience could have been left in any doubt as to Jenůfa’s status as one of the greatest operas of the twentieth century. I do not know whether this were intentional, but I was sometimes moved to think of Janáček as a successor to Mussorgsky in terms of unsparing operatic realism. One cannot say much better than that.


Henry Holland said...

What kind of trim is Robert Brubaker's voice in? He's singing Alviano in Schreker's Die Gezeichneten here in Los Angeles next year and the last time I heard, his voice sounded worn out. Thanks!

Mark Berry said...

He sounded fine to me; if anything, he improved as he went on. Certainly he seemed very much 'in character' throughout. This might explain why his voice seemed to gain more bloom later on - or maybe that was a happy coincidence. There were no particular signs of wear, so far as I can recall.

Henry Holland said...

That's nice to hear, he certainly knows the part of Alviano, if his voice is in good trim then he should be fantastic. Damn, another 13 months until the "Gezeichneten" here, it seems like an eternity.....

Bruce Hodges said...

"This performance’s signal achievement was that not a single member of the audience could have been left in any doubt as to Jenůfa’s status as one of the greatest operas of the twentieth century."

How can one not agree? Beautiful review, Mark!

Mark Berry said...

Thanks, Bruce! I suppose, like Boulez, I have come relatively late - though not quite that late... - to Janáček. But since I saw Jenůfa at Covent Garden under Haitink (with Karita Mattila in the title role, and both Anja Silja and Eva Randová simply unforgettable as the Kostelnička and Grandmother Buryja, respectively), I have never looked back. For anyone who doesn't know the Erato live recording from that production, it is every inch a match for Mackerras. And, as I said in the review, to be able even to begin to speak of Eivind Gullberg Jensen in such company indicates the level of his achievement.