Friday 24 June 2016

Jenufa returns to the London Coliseum

English National Opera - Jenufa - Laura Wilde, Nicky Spence and ENO Chorus - photo Donald Cooper
English National Opera - Jenufa - Laura Wilde, Nicky Spence and ENO Chorus - photo Donald Cooper
Janacek Jenufa; Laura Wilde, Michaela Martens, Nicky Spence, Peter Hoare, dir: David Alden, cond: Mark Wigglesworth; English National Opera at the London Coliseum
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 23 2016
Star rating: 4.0

A debut from Laura Wilde set against a real ensemble performance from ENO

English National Opera - Jenufa - Michaela Martens - photo Donald Cooper
Michaela Martens - photo Donald Cooper
David Alden's 2006 production of Janacek's Jenufa was revived at English National Opera on 23 June 2016, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth. Designed by Charles Edwards with costumes by Jon Morrell, and lighting by Adam Silverman the production featured Laura Wilde as Jenufa (in her UK debut), Michaela Martens as the Kostelnicka, Peter Hoare as Laca, Nicky Spence as Steva, and Valerie Reid as Grandmother Burya.

The production transposes the action to a rather grim 1950's Eastern bloc factory with Alden resolutely avoiding any sense of the folkloric. When I first saw the production (see my review) I liked the directness of Alden's production but this time round I found myself less appreciative; perhaps the new cast threw things into a different focus.

It is pointless complaining too much about Alden's expressionist style, though the production did seem to have rather too much wall-hugging. Much as in his production of Britten's Peter Grimes (seen at the London Coliseum in the 2008/9 and 2013/14 season), Alden seems to be interested in creating a world of broken people, almost grotesques, against which Jenufa (Laura Wilde) seems the only normal person. This makes the villagers and mill-hands in the first act come across as profoundly unlikeable. And with such an extreme, expressionist production style, the descent into madness of the Kostelnicka (Michaela Martens) seems less significant. But this re-imagining does not falsify the story, in the way the Alden does in other productions, and his concept of Jenufa and Laca (Peter Hoare) as a pair of broken people ultimately finding each other, makes Janacek's glorious conclusion all the more moving.

Another factor in the way the production comes over must be the style and speed of Mark Wigglesworth's performance with the ENO Orchestra. Wigglesworth seemed to prize weight and drama over narrative and propulsion. Whereas Charles Mackerras on the Chandos recording comes in at just over 120 minutes, the performance at ENO seemed to take rather longer (maybe as much as 15 minutes longer than this). Neither Wigglesworth nor Alden seemed interested in the underlying speech rhythms of Janacek's music so that Act One in particular came over as dramatic, stylised and not a little stolid, rather than having a sense of the naturalism and vitality that it can have. This was no longer a depiction of village life but more of an examination of the villagers' psyches.

English National Opera - Jenufa - Laura Wilde, Peter Hoare - photo Donald Cooper
Laura Wilde, Peter Hoare - photo Donald Cooper
Laura Wilde's Jenufa took some time to find her real form. In Act One she was touching and elicited sympathy without ever really wrenching our hearts, Wilde did not really convey Jenufa's inner torment the way some singers have. But in Act Two, with the pain made explicit, Wilde's Jenufa started to grow in intensity and power, and by the time she rises above all the anger, in Act Three when Jenufa says they must forgive the Kostelnicka, Wilde too seem to be transformed. She found a real expressive vein which matched the intensity of the music.

It helped that Michaela Martens' Kostelnicka had grown too. In Act One she delivered the solo strongly but without a real sense of the character's inner fierceness, but in Act Two we came to appreciate that Martens' Kostelnicka was a far warmer and more human interpretation than some. But this did not prevent Martens delivering a stupendous curse, and giving a fine sense of a mind in torment in Act Three. Marten's Kostelnicka was an interpretation which grew on me, and which a found I came to appreciate. Like Wilde's Jenufa, I think the performance will grow and develop during the run.

Peter Hoare's Laca was a shambling, shambolic figure, completely unable to believe in his own worth. But this was allied to a superb sense of fiery dynamism in Hoare's voice. Hoare's is not an heroic voice, but he brought a feeling of concentrated power to the music and real vibrancy. Whenever Hoare's Laca was anywhere near Jenufa, the air fairly crackled with suppressed possibilities, and when the two final got together in the last moments there was a feeling of a torrent finally released.

Nicky Spence's Steva was very much a larger than life character, with Spence giving a superb account of the carefree womaniser in Act One. But it felt more like a solo than a character in a drama, in particular there seemed to be insufficient intensity in the relationship between Spence's Steva and Wilde's Jenufa, you just didn't quite believe so much depended on the relationship. But Spence turned vicious with real nastiness in Act Two and went to pieces in fine style in Act Three.

English National Opera - Jenufa - Laura Wilde and ENO Chorus - photo Donald Cooper
English National Opera - Jenufa - Laura Wilde and ENO Chorus - photo Donald Cooper
Valerie Reid was a strongly characterful Grandmother Burya, firmly in control in Act One but distressingly vacant in the final act. The other parts were strongly taken. Graeme Danby's foreman having a far stronger part in the Act One drama than usual, with Danby returning in Act Three as the Mayor, with a predilection for cigars and young ladies. Natalie Herman was a delight as the Mayor's wife, whilst Soraya Mafi made Karolka rather more charming than usual. Sarah Labiner was a lively Jano, with Claire Mitcher as Barena, Morag Boyle as a neighbour and Claire Pendleton as a villager.
Both the ENO Orchestra and Chorus performed superbly under Mark Wigglesworth's direction, giving thrilling performances. This was a very particular view of Janacek's opera, but within the music making was full of an energising vibrancy.

This was an evening notable for a pair of performances, from Laura Wilde and Michaela Martens, which remarkable promise and seem set to develop and grow, set within the context of a really ensemble performance which showed ENO at its very best.

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