Tonight's visit to the opera is a bit of a mystery tour for me as I have to admit that, other than the information provided by Scottish Opera, both Jenufa and its creator Leos Janacek are unknown to me. Also, this is my first opera in Czech, and I have absolutely no idea what that language sounds like as an opera.
Jenufa isa new co-production between Scottish Opera and Den Jyske Opera/Danish National Opera, and as the opening music started and the curtain rose, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. Would it be good, bad, or just mediocre. The answer surprisingly was none of these. Jenufa is an amazing piece of work with a realistic story of a rural family set against truly beautiful music.
Jenufa is at its heart a very simple domestic story (based on a play Jeji Pastorkyna by Gabriela Preissova) that reflects the morals of the time (particularly in a rural village). Grandmother Buryjovka (and mill owner) is the family matriarch. Her two sons are now dead and it is their children who are the cast of this tale. Jenufa is the daughter of one son, but her mother is now dead. The younger son re-married Kostelnicka (widow of the church warden). The elder son married a woman who already had one son - Laca, and together they had a son Steva (who will inherit the mill). Steva and Jenufa plan to marry, but unknown to anyone Jenufa is pregnant with his child. The impending military service for Steva may however make this impossible. Laca however also has hopes to be with Jenufa, so the situation is already getting difficult. Somehow, Steva is not chosen for military service and arrives back drunk and boasting of his popularity with other girls. Appalled at his behaviour Kostelnicka forbids any marriage until Steva can stay sober for a whole year. As Steva leaves, Laca confronts Jenufa and in a moment of madness cuts Jenufa across the cheek with a knife that has just been sharpened. A deliberate act to disfigure her so that Steva may not now want her.
Kostelnicka's plans of course go badly wrong as she discovers that Jenufa is pregnant. Jenufa is hidden away in her room until she gives birth (everyone is told she has left the area). When Steva finds out, he offers to keep the child financially, but will not admit to being the father and he will not marry Jenufa due to not now loving her (since her disfigurement) and also the fact that he is now engaged to the local Mayor's daughter. When Laca (who has been told the child is dead) offers to still marry Jenufa, Kostelnicka decided that for the honour of herself and her step-daughter the child must die. The child is taken from the drugged Jenufa and thrown into the river. Unfortunately, the river does not do its job and ten months later as Jenufa and Laca are arranging their wedding day, the body of the child is discovered in the frozen ice. Locals blame the murder on Jenufa (who admits the child is hers), but Kostelnicka admits her crime to everyone. Amazingly, Jenufa forgives her and ever loyal Laca still goes ahead with his wedding plan.
Our principal cast are Lee Bisset (Jenufa), Anne-Marie Owens (Grandmother), Peter Wedd (Laca) , Sam Furness (Steva) and Kathryn Harries (Kostelnicka). It is really difficult to single anyone out on stage tonight as everyone gives a great performance, but of course the principal role here belongs to Lee Bisset as Jenufa and it is an outstanding performance that is vocally emotional and powerful, but also gently acted. This is not one of the great heroic roles in opera, but a simple story of family life and the role of Jenufa is more in line with a modern soap opera at times than a 100 plus year old operatic role. Some people in the audience may prefer the great set roles, but I just loved the realism of this work. Kathryn Harries as Kostelnicka is also outstanding in her role and manages to make her character a woman who does an evil deed driven by guilt and family honour rather than a cartoon wicked step mother role. Jenufa and Kostelnicka pretty much take up the whole of Act II together, so the chemistry between these two characters has to work, and it does so beautifully on stage. Peter Wedd and Sam Furness also put in strong vocal and character perfomances tonight, but it is Anne-Marie Owens as the matriarchal grandmother that binds everyone together in a strong but underplayed performance all night.
This is a big budget full costume production with some amazing sets and a big cast (I think I counted approaching 60 people on stage at the final curtain). A simple house sets the scene for Act I and the interior of a house for Acts II and III. The setting could be anywhere, but the programme notes do say that this setting is rural Ireland. Something about the music by Leos Janacek is almost film soundtrack style in its composition and could very easily be the score to a 1940s or 1950s Hollywood musical. The music and the settings did at times remind me a bit of the classic film Brigadoon starring Gene Kelly. This work of course is decades before that, and before sound was even imagined in a film (cinema was of course in its infancy). Taking this reference into account, and g iven that the original performance of Jenufa was in 1904, it is easy with the vantage point of over 100 years of passing to look back and realise what a truly ground-breaking performance this work must have been in its day and why some contemporary audiences were puzzled by it (I am being kind here).
Jenufa is an outstanding piece of work with a visionary and realistic narrative set against a ground breaking musical format for its time. I really need to find out more about Leos Janaceck and his music after this performance. Czech by the way turns out to be a surprisingly pleasant language to listen to as an operatic performance. I hope this work becomes one of the standards by Scottish Opera as it deserves to be performed many times over the coming years.
Review by Tom King