Jenufa

Leoš Janácek
Welsh National Opera
Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
(2008)

Production photo

It's easy to see why this production, first seen in 2003, won accolades. Sir Charles Mackerras may not now have the baton in this revival and the cast too may have changed but this is still a pulsating and utterly gripping evening.

Dedicated to his late daughter, Jenufa, the opera owes musical debts to Russian music such as Mussorgsky and Moravian folk music. Dramatically the work is of a piece with Strindberg; Hunger, the novel by Knut Hamsun, or The Winter's Tale with which it shares a febrile, obsessive, destructive love.

It is as about as far as one can get from say, a comic opera such as The Barber of Seville, and there's little in the way of light relief during the two hours forty minutes. There's probably too little in the way of the sort of tune that will send you humming out into the night. Not that this is a criticism. This is the sort of theatre described by Peter Brook as an "irrigation of the spirit".

It's the sort of thrill to be found for those with a taste for it in Bergman's film Autumn Sonata. Bleak it may be but it is utterly truthful, impeccably acted and directed and beautifully shot. This production may not quite be on that level but for me it shared many of those merits. And, at the heart, is a riveting performance by Peter Hoare as Laca Klemen, Jenufa's unwanted admirer.

Often, opera audiences are called on to suspend disbelief when watching performers whose physical suitability for a role comes some way behind their vocal prowess. I can recall one Tosca, hailed as a "lithe panther", below whom I would not want to be when she hurled herself off the battlements.

Hoare, however, is completely believable as the obsessive, thwarted lover, utterly at the mercy of his feelings and his singing is of a piece with his acting. The cast around him, with due deference to the singer playing Jenufa, are also strongly cast. Particular credit should go to firstly to Susan Bickley as Kostelnicka; Nucca Focile as Jenufa and Susan Gorton as the grandmother.

If there was a weak link it is Stephen Rooke as Steva Buryja, Jenufa's fiancé, who didn't seem tapped into the same power grid as the rest of the cast. The original director for this production was Katie Mitchell whose hand it is easy to detect. Loathed by some, feted by others, she creates, at her best, undeniably powerful theatre as anyone who saw Iphegenia at Aulis at the NT can testify.

I have two cavils. One is to do with the work itself and what feels like a happy ending tacked on to a tragedy. The other is with the curious decision to raise the back wall of what until then has been a claustrophobic, naturalistic set to reveal a child running towards the arms of Kostelnicka. What does it signify?

A personal highlight of the year.

Kevin Catchpole reviewed this production at the Mayflower, Southampton

Reviewer: Pete Wood