Last Updated on October 2, 2021
Jenůfa – an accomplished and moving new production at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
We are thrilled to review the first production of Jenůfa at Covent Garden since 2001. This season’s show is the postponed production from February 2021 by award-winning German director Claus Guth, with set design by Michael Levine, Costumes by Gesine Völlm and lighting by James Farncombe. It’s a dramatic yet minimalist staging that is enhanced by great casting, sublime vocals and some convincing characterisation. This three-act opera was Janáček’s first operatic success, at the age of 50. After a successful premiere in Brno, the main city in Moravia, it took more than a decade to get Jenůfa transferred to Prague’s National Theatre, where the composer had already made something of an enemy of the Head of Opera. When it did open there it was an overwhelming success. Even more surprisingly it was also a hit in Vienna, just a few months after Czechoslovakia had declared independence from the Austrian Empire.
The curtain rises to a large room, obscured by metal shuttering which rolls up gradually. A dormitory-style setting with beds round three sides of the room and female mill workers dressed in black seated at the foot of each one with a bassinet hanging down to one side of each bed while the men standing to attention at the head. The grandmother (Elena Zilio) is seated in the middle, facing the workers, her back to the audience. She berates Jenůfa (Asmik Grigorian) for not pulling her weight while the workers continue to spin wool.
It’s in this setting that we first meet the two brothers, Laca (Nicky Spence) a bumpkin like character and the arrogant Števa(Saimir Pirgu), the mill owner. What unfolds is an emotional tale of Jenůfa’s progression from hope to despair to eventual radiant happiness. The eponymous heroine falls in love with Števa. She’s pregnant with his child but worried that he’s about to be recruited as a soldier. Meanwhile, Števa’s brother, Laca, looks on cynically while Jenůfa’s stepmother, the Kostelnička (Karita Mattila), clearly disapproves. When Števa appears, much the worse for drink, he’s warned off by the Kostelnička but he returns and Jenůfa pleads her love for him. He leaves when she starts to nag and Laca reappears. Taunting Jenůfa by pinning flowers on her dress given to Števa by another female admirer, Laca, in his frustration slashes Jenůfa across the face.
For the opening of Act II we see the floor covered with mattresses, piled up to look like drifted snow, while the beds which had lined the mill room have been carefully reconstructed to make a two-roomed house in which Jenůfa has been hidden while she gives birth to Števa’s child. Women in black wearing ‘Handmaiden’s Tale’ style bonnets huddle around the house and a large black crow climbs up and perches on the roof.
Much to the Kostelnička’s dismay, Števa has vanished. Although she disapproved of the match initially, she’s now keen to redeem Jenůfa’s honour by getting him to marry. But, he declares he’s not interested and it’s only when he discovers that he has a child he relents a little and admits that he’s contracted to marry Karolka, the Mayor’s daughter. Realising that Jenůfa will be dishonoured and left as a single mother, Kostelnička drugs her and steals the baby. When Jenůfa awakes, she’s told that she’s been delirious and during her illness, the baby has died and been buried. Laca reappears and declares his love for Jenůfa and a wedding is planned.
The striking set for Act II is enhanced by subtle lighting effects. At a certain point, the frames of the bed/house create a shadow against the backdrop of the set. That gradually mutates into a prison-like fence of shadows – Kostelnička has trapped herself in a nightmare situation.
While wedding preparations open Act III, and although Jenůfa is dressed in mourning clothes, she’s calm and seemingly accepting of her marriage to Laca. Various guests pay their respects to the couple and the Grandmother blesses them. At the point when the Kostelnička starts to give her own blessing, screams are heard and the tragedy unfolds. The body of Jenůfa’s murdered baby is found in the mill-stream. At first, the villagers blame Jenůfa and Laca stands in her defence. Then, the Kostelnička confesses, realising that there is no other option.
The Kostelnička is taken away by the mayor, leaving Jenůfa and Laca alone together. Eventually, Laca succeeds in persuading Jenůfa that despite all the tragedy, the suffering has brought the pair together with a greater love than ever.
The casting for this production at the Royal Opera House has the Lithuanian soprano, Asmik Grigorian making a powerful and accomplished Royal Opera House debut as Jenůfa. Karita Mattila as the Kostelnička is a well-established award-winning star, who, along with Asmik Grigorian was originally cast to appear in late February 2020, a production postponed thanks to the pandemic. They make a vocally convincing mother and daughter, both rich, lyrical and commanding; The two brothers are played by the brilliant Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu who personifies the superficial Števa and Scottish tenor Nicky Spence who made his Royal Opera debut in the 2017/18 Season as Big Prisoner/Nikita (From the House of the Dead), and here is an excellent and endearing lover, seamlessly evolving from being the clumsy and jealous underdog to a loyal and supportive hero.
The Royal Opera House Orchestra, conducted by Hungarian conductor Henrik Nánási plays the stunning music infused with traditional folk melodies of Janáček’s native Moravia with conviction. Impeccable vocals and outstanding performances by Karita Mattila and Asmik Grigorian, striking sets, simple but stunning costumes and some innovative lighting effects combine to make this a truly memorable production.
Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD
28 Sep 21 – 12 Oct 21, Five performances, start times vary. Running time three hours, including two intervals
Tickets priced from £6 to £125
This is the second new production from the Royal Opera House this season following on from a brilliant Rigoletto.