In general, the wait was worth it. When the closing took place in March last year, the new production of the Royal Opera of Jenufa a week before the first night. The company was reluctant to lose what was expected to be a powerful show, and rearranged it as early as possible, and that’s 18 months later.
Like most of Janacek’s operas, Jenufa rarely gets a poor performance. Singers would not want to accept it if they were not willing to give it the dedication it requires, and this new production takes a strong stand in the budding, very heterogeneous, new Janácek series of the Royal Opera.
At a time when opera schedules were going on around the world, things were going well with the originally planned couple of prominent women. Asmik Grigorian, a haunting Salome at the Salzburg Festival, a contrasting Jenufa, the emotions wrapped tightly inside, make the sharp edge of her soprano fit well with this Slavic music, even if she misses some warmth.
Karita Mattila, a well-known Jenufa here 20 years ago, is now making a gripping stepmother, Kostelnicka. This puts her in a good place to show how a cycle of suffering is transmitted by men from herself to the next generation in Jenufa. There is still lyrical beauty in her voice that wins sympathy for the tragic dilemma of her character. A terrifying command over the stage and a generous amount of melodramatics do the rest.
These two are the outcasts in a strictly conformist society. At the time he wrote Jenufa, Janácek took lessons from the verismo operas of the day. Director Claus Guth does not see the opera in the light and his production goes to the opposite extreme.
Here a highly stylized world is encased in a closed white box, or later a cage made of bed frames, prisons for the soul. It is inhabited by dark women who repeat machine-like tasks, all dressed in identical black costumes as if they were refugees The Maid’s Story (Does Margaret Atwood claim copyright over these dystopian societies?). German directors must have their symbols – blame it for having ingrained too much Wagner in the womb – and a giant black tower looks on and presides over as a winged harbinger of doom.
It would be too much for some (some muted evil rumbles among the general cheers), but Guth has done a serious and concentrated job. Janacek’s failed relationships are revealed in heartbreakingly painful details.
None of the cast is helped by the very open set, which makes it difficult for the voices to project. There are two tenors who contrast a lot, Saimir Pirgu, an extraordinarily romantic, full-throated Steva, and Nicky Spence, who peels away low-complex emotions like the tumultuous Laca. Elena Zilio is the wonderfully furious grandmother Buryjovka, David Stout sings loudly as the foreman, and Jacquelyn Stucker shines as young Karolka. The conductor, Henrik Nanasi, drives the opera home with thrust, mostly well-played, sometimes rude or poorly tuned. From here, the next step in the series should be The Macropulos case, long outstanding.