Grange Park Opera
Theatre in the Woods at West Horsley Place

Natalya Romaniw as Jenufa, Peter Hoare as Laca Credit: Robert Workman
Natalya Romaniw as Jenufa Credit: Robert Workman

Grange Park this year invites us to the Theatre in the Woods, an unfinished beast but full of charm and promise.

Alongside a revival of Jenufa, a production that originates from the WNO in 1998, this is an evening of wining and dining. Wasfi Khan has pulled a rabbit from a hat: the Opera House has been thrown up in 11 months with huge generosity from donors and the Gascoignes. Aside from the building, there are acres of walled garden, a walk in the woodland brambles and roses spilling everywhere.

The two intervals and plenty of time allowed pre/post-performance give the patrons plenty of time to luxuriate in these magnificent grounds and explore this latest addition to the picnic opera scene. This year goodwill allows for anything unfinished and lacking polish—with the knowledge that next year brings more excitement and exploration.

Jenufa is quite a different kettle of fish—whilst I’m happy to find the environs half-baked, I expect nothing but the highest quality onstage.

The singers do not disappoint. Natalya Romaniw makes her role debut as Jenufa and is a constant delight at the ease with which she delivers this tricky music. Her warm voice is expansive and lyrical: a palette of earthy tones and the power to soar at emotional climaxes. If her name is on the bill in future, book your tickets fast.

Other highlights are Susan Bullock as Kostelnička, transformed from the buttoned-up matriarch to a guilt-written wretch by the wedding scene. Nicky Spence is in fine voice as Števa, coming across as a particularly spineless individual unable to face the problems he’s caused. Peter Hoare (Laca) makes this fiendishly high role sound easy, his bright timbre well suited. Hoare is pent with energy, liable to explode at any moment in this volcanic portrayal.

This fine cast performs under the baton of William Lacey conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra. The orchestra brings out the interesting textures of Janacek’s finely orchestrated score and the singers and orchestra are well balanced.

Superb singing aside, the direction lacks oomph. The story is well told, and I believed the emotional journey for each character, but there is a lot of to-ing and fro-ing from the cast without an obvious aim.

This fabulous new theatre demanding £10 million to build is underused. Vicky Mortimer’s original designs convey a sense of the simplicity of the community’s lives and the small rooms add a layer of intimacy to the tale and claustrophobia. Unfortunately in the move to the new theatre, the sets looked as if they didn’t quite fit the stage—a yard or two of unused space left to the side, let alone the lack of depth.

A night out to West Horsley Place is a deserving new fixture in one’s black tie picnic opera calendar. The quality of singing is excellent but, compared to the majesty that last years Don Carlo achieved in the much smaller space at the old Grange Park, this year's Jenufa left me a little underwhelmed.

Reviewer: Louise Lewis