Jenůfa opera review: Intense and brilliant Janáček at the ENO | Theatre | Entertainment

Thanks to three outstanding performances, two onstage and one in the orchestra pit, this production of Jenůfa gloriously demonstrates the heights the ENO can reach as well as the magnificence of Janáček’s music.

Let’s start with the music because the Czech composer Leos Janáček had a unique style, with the orchestra and the singers often seeming detached from each other, but combining to create a gripping emotional intensity.

This was brilliantly captured by the Canadian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson, whose precise control over pace and volume brought out the best from the ENO Orchestra, with the contributions from the percussion and strings particularly powerful.

The story centres on the relationship between two women: the young and troubled Jenůfa and her pious step-mother, known only the Kostelnička, or sacristan, of the village church. 

Jenůfa, superbly played by Irish soprano Jennifer Davis, is in love with Števa, who is a drunken lout and the Kostelnička decrees that he can only marry her if he abstains from alcohol for a year. This is unfortunate, as Jenůfa is pregnant by Števa, though she has not yet told anyone. 

Meanwhile, Števa’s almost equally loutish brother Laca is in love with Jenůfa and slashes her face in a frustration-caused accident. All of this develops in the first act, which paves the way for a domestic drama unmatched by any other opera. 

Secrecy, deception, infanticide and emotional breakdown develop in the second act, all resulting from the actions of the Kostelnička in her misguided attempts to avoid the dishonour of her step-daughter’s unmarried pregnancy and illegitimate child. The emotional intensity of this role is perfectly captured by British soprano Susan Bullock, conveying the conflict between self-righteousness and doubt about her extreme actions.

The nature of the story is sometimes hard to bear and the music is complex and sometimes difficult to listen to, but Janáček’s Jenůfa is an undoubtled masterpiece and the current ENO production is a beautifully devastating experience.

My only criticism of this revival of David Alden’s striking 2006 production lies in the English translation. Translating opera always poses problems matching the natural rhythms of our language to the rhythms of the music and all too often, the words simply do not fit comfortably.

JENUFA AT THE ENO (various dates until 27 March) or 020 7845 9300

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