Jenůfa, Janáček, Director David Alden, conductor Mark Wigglesworth, London Coliseum, June 23rd 2016, reviewed by Leslie Jones
The revolution heralded by the recent appointment of Daniel Kramer as ENO’s Artistic Director is yet to carry all before it, judging from David Alden’s production (more accurately revival) of the opera Jenůfa. In terms of sets, costumes, lighting etc this was a somewhat conventional affair, in marked contrast to Kramer’s iconoclastic and innovative production of Tristan and Isolde.
Originally set in a Moravian village, Alden has changed the locale to a soul destroying industrial estate during the Communist era, presumably in Czechoslovakia, judging from the framed photo of some Soviet satrap. Act One unfolds in a mill. The ubiquitous dreariness is only offset by the rebellious antics and biker’s leathers of Ŝteva (Nicky Spence) a drunken womaniser (or free spirit, depending on your point of view) and the father of Jenůfa’s child.
Jenůfa has many of the ingredients of classical tragedy; the unqualified love of a mother for her illegitimate baby; the initially unrequited love of Laca for Jenůfa; and the conflict between the maternal instinct and a repressive value system which leads to the drowning by the Kostelnička of her stepdaughter’s innocent child, unwelcome in this pitiless world. The second of the three acts, beautifully orchestrated by the composer, is unbearably sad. He drew on real events for his inspiration, to wit, the illness and death of his beloved daughter Olga in February 1903, after an unhappy affair.
The influence of Parsifal is apparent both in terms of the score but also the religious undercurrents (such as the inclusion of the Marian antiphon Salve regina) and the theme of ultimate redemption through compassion, as exhibited by the love of Laca for the hapless Jenůfa, a love eventually reciprocated. Love overcomes the relentless conformity demanded by an oppressive social system, ostensibly communist but imbued with Christianity’s disdain for the body. Of the principal singers, Peter Hoare (Laca), Nicky Spence (Ŝteva) and Laura Wilde (Jenůfa) all gave powerful and moving performances. One small quibble and that concerns the composer’s declamatory libretto. Many of the vocal lines are repeated, in a monotonous and tiresome fashion. At times we were reminded of John Adams’ Nixon in China.
DR LESLIE JONES is the editor of Quarterly Review