“So she marries her abuser!” – Overheard, the disapproving tones from the female half of an American couple in Covent Garden’s Crush Bar during the interval of the first night of Jenufa. Well, it’s not quite that simple in Janáček’s early opera set in remote Moravia. A long history of unhappy and violent marriages give rise to the extreme action taken by the Kostelnička, foster-mother to the orphaned Jenufa, in order to save her stepdaughter from disgrace.
Janáček’s Jenufa, premiered in Brno in 1904 – almost a year after the death from typhoid fever of the Janáčks’ only daughter Olga – still has the power to shock by its tale of infanticide in a repressive rural community. The Royal Opera’s first new production for 20 years of the Czech composer’s early masterpiece has the added impetus of star singers in rising Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian singing the title role, and Finland’s greatest present day soprano Karita Mattila as the Kostelnička or church sacristan – widow of the village mill owner Toma Buryja. Tenors Nicky Spence and Saimir Pirgu are strongly cast as the two Buryja half-brothers, Laca and Steva. While disputing with Jenufa over her infatuation for the unreliable Steva, Laca slashes at her cheek in a moment of rage, instantly regretted. But the disfigurement leads to Steva’s rejection of his girlfriend as damaged goods, and her future prospects are ruined unless she can be married off to a willing suitor.
German director Claus Guth and designer Michael Levine re-figure the Moravian mill of the original to create an abstract set suggesting a universally repressive community that is hemmed in by wooden slatted walls and rows of regimented hospital beds. Black-clad women act as chorus to the unfolding tragedy. The house where the Kostelnicka hides her stepdaughter away during the months of Jenufa’s pregnancy with Steva’s child is seen as a large wire cage, on the edge of which perches an ominous black crow, of human size.
In Karita Mattila’s strikingly beautiful Kostelnička you will witness the fiery spirit of an independent woman released by the death of her brutal husband to try to make a better future for her stepdaughter. Asmik Grigorian sounds wonderful and brings an air of fragile intensity to the beleaguered victim of nature. The final act, when melting Springtime ice reveals the baby under the surface, is emotionally stunning.
As the Kostelnička is led away to face justice for the murder, Jenufa and Laca are left alone on stage. The final sight of the two of them stepping forward, eyes gazing to the horizon as the symbolic wall behind them closes, is heart-lifting.
Top marks to the Royal Opera for also scheduling a stream of the opera from the ROH website at 7.30pm on Friday 15 October.
Conductor: Henrik Nanasi
Director: Claus Guth.
Set Designer: Michael Levine.
Lighting Designer: James Farncombe.
Choreographer: Teresa Rotemberg.
Video Designer: Rocafilm.
Production Photograph: Tristram Kenton.