Friday, 23 October 2015

Strongly characterised - Jenufa in Leeds

Janacek Jenufa - Opera North - photo Richard H Smith
Janacek Jenufa - Opera North - photo Richard H Smith
Janacek Jenufa; Ylva Kihlberg, Susan BIckley, Elizabeth Sikora, David Butt Philip, Ed Lyon, dir: Tom Cairns, cond: Aleksandar Markovic; Opera North at the Grand Theatre Leeds
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 22 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Strong ensemble, and coruscating performances from Susan Bickley and from the orchestra

Opera North's production of Janacek's Jenufa was new in 1995, and returned to the Grand Theatre Leeds on 22 October 2015 looking fresh and intense with a strong cast. Ylva Kihlberg was Jenufa, with Ed Lyon as Steva, David Butt Philip as Laca, Susan Bickley as the Kostelnicka, and Elizabeth Sikora as Grandmother Buryjovka. Aleksandar Markovic conducted, with direction and design by Tom Cairns, lighting by Wolfgang Göbbel, choreography by Aletta Collins.

David Butt Philip and Ylva Kihlberg - Janacek Jenufa - Opera North - photo Richard H Smith
David Butt Philip and Ylva Kihlberg
Janacek Jenufa - Opera North - photo Richard H Smith
Cairns production placed the opera in the early to mid 20th century, with costumes which reflected the distinctive Bohemian location of the original story mixed with more traditional 20th century clothing. The sets presented a strongly characterised world, all slightly akilter with sloping floors, uneven backdrops and a very striking colour palate.

Cairns direction was strong on the interaction between the characters. Act One having a powerful sense of the undercurrents present in the family relationships, though the drama felt a little out of focus here. In Act Two, with Susan Bickley's powerful performance as the Kostelnicka, the drama really came into focus. Her visually and vocally strong account of Act Three almost threatened to destabilise the work, but she was supported by equally powerful performances from Ylva Kihlberg as Jenufa, Ed Lyon as Steva and David Butt Philip as Laca, with well characterised performances from Jeremy Peaker and Claire Pascoe as the Mayor and his wife, and Daisy Brown as Karolka.

Susan Bickley - Janacek Jenufa - Opera North - photo Richard H Smith
Susan Bickley
Janacek Jenufa - Opera North - photo Richard H Smith
I first came to know Jenufa in David Poutney's production for Scottish Opera with Pauline Tinsley as the Kostelnicka and her performance has remained a touchstone for me. Susan Bickley brought the same qualities of intensity, strength of line and the sense of a powerful character conveyed through the voice, but combined with an intense feeling of sympathy too. Bickley's account of the Act One aria, in which the Kostelnicka explains her life with Jenufa's father and why she is against the marriage with Steva, threatened to de-stabilise Act One which is perhaps why Janacek cut it. Bickley's Kostelnicka was a remarkably intense but dowdy woman, slightly forbidding too. And Bickley brought out a real sense of the Kostelnicka's character in her interactions with Jenufa, Laca and Steva in Act Two. It was in this act that the drama really took fire, thanks to the superb ensemble work between Bickley, Kihlberg, Butt Philip and Lyon. This was opera at its most dramatically intense. This continued into Act Three, with a mesmerising performance as Bickley clearly showed Kostelnicka going to pieces, until the moment when she confesses and then Bickley's whiplash voice cut through the ensemble and she was in charge again.

Elizabeth Sikora, Ed Lyon, Ylva Kihlberg - Janacek Jenufa - Opera North - photo Richard H Smith
Elizabeth Sikora, Ed Lyon, Ylva Kihlberg
Janacek Jenufa - Opera North - photo Richard H Smith
With such a powerful account of the Kostelnicka, there was a danger that the other characters would fall into the shade but this did not happen here. Ylva Kihlberg made an intense and rather subdued Jenufa. In Act One she was clearly worried about being pregnant and whilst Kihlberg gave an intense and music performance, it lacked something of the inner radiance needed to bring the act into focus. In fact, the later two acts worked best because here Kihlberg's sense of ensemble playing drew the drama together. She was profoundly poignant in Act Two. The first half of Act Three was a strong sense of comedy of embarrassment, as Kihlberg and David Butt Philip's Laca tried to cover over the cracks in the family drama. I have to confess that I found Kihlberg's Jenufa interesting and characterful, without the part quite seeming to take wing and form the centre of the drama. But all was redeemed in the closing duet, where Kihlberg and David Butt Philip were radiant..

The casting of Ed Lyon and David Butt Philip as Steva and Laca was interesting because in the past opera companies have tended to make the outgoing Steva the more Italianate of voices (I can remember Arthur Davies doing the role at ENO). But here it was Philip, who has been singing Rodolfo and plans Pinkerton, who was Laca. In Act One, I felt that Philip did not quite convince of Laca's intensity and anguish, though he came close. But in Act Two, his love for Jenufa kept spilling over in the glorious lyricism of his voice and this brought a strength to his performance. By Act Three Laca seemed to have grown in character and as I have said, the closing duet was glorious.

Ed Lyon made a brilliantly attractive yet superbly untrustworthy Steva, Wonderful in his carefree drunkenness in Act One, endearing yet shallow too in his relationship with women in general and Jenufa in particular. He was superbly at a loss, throwing money around in Act Two; not devil-may-care but a man who simply cannot cope. And this was reflected in his sense of little boy lost as the drama unfolded in Act Three.

Janacek Jenufa - Opera North - photo Richard H Smith
Act Three, Janacek Jenufa
Opera North - photo Richard H Smith
Elizabeth Sikora brought the character of Grandmother Buryjovka far more into focus than is sometimes the case. And the remaining characters were all neatly etched in the drama, creating a strong sense of ensemble with Frankie Bounds as Jano, Dean Robinson as the Foreman, Sarah Estill as Barena, Beth Mackay as a Maid, Jeremy Peaker as the Mayor, Claire Pascoe as the Mayor's wife, Daisy Brown as Karolka and Hazel Croft as an aunt.

There was one major problem with the production, the balance. Whilst Aleksandar Markovic and the orchestra never seemed excessively loud, the balance favoured the orchestra (at least from the stalls where I was sitting). I think this was because the production, with the strongly stylised and substantial set, placed the singers consistently upstage. There were few moments indeed when characters sang from the front of the stage.

Vienna-based Serbian conductor Aleksandar Markovic was the Music Director of the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra from 2009 to 2015 and clearly understands Janacek's music. He made the Orchestra of Opera North sound different, bringing a wonderful tang to Janacek's orchestration and making the music's distinctive Slovakian accent come out in the very timbres of the sounds the musicians made and not just in the notes. The orchestra was very much part of the drama, and they made a strong part of the intensity of the evening.

Ylva Kihlberg, David Butt Philip - Janacek Jenufa - Opera North - photo Richard H Smith
Ylva Kihlberg, David Butt Philip - Janacek Jenufa - Opera North - photo Richard H Smith
The edition used was, rightly, Charles Mackerras and John Tyrrell's edition of Janacek's original Brno version which wipes away all the later conventional re-orchestrations so that moments like the closing duet have that lovely Janacek tang to them. The performance was sung in Edward Downes and Otakar Kraus's classic translation, sensible in a non-Czech cast. And, with the caveat of the balance problems, the cast did well at getting the words over.

This was a strong ensemble production of Janacek's opera. With Yvlva Kihlberg perhaps not as radiant as come, but conveying the intensity of the way Jenufa is damaged, superbly complemented with a coruscating performance from Susan Bickley, and an equally coruscating account of the orchestra score from Markovic and the orchestra Elsewhere on this blog:

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