Sunday, 25 June 2017

A remarkable ensemble: Janacek's Jenufa at Grange Park Opera's new home

Janacek: Jenufa - Grange Park Opera - Natalya Romaniw, Susan Bullock (Photo Richard Lewisohn)
Janacek: Jenufa - Grange Park Opera - Natalya Romaniw, Susan Bullock (Photo Richard Lewisohn)
Janacek Jenufa; Natalya Romaniw, Susan Bullock, Nicky Spence, Peter Hoare, dir: Katie Mitchell / Robin Tebbutt, cond: William Lacey; Grange Park Opera at West Horsley
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 23 2017
Star rating: 5.0

A quartet of strong performance illuminates a superb ensemble performance

Janacek: Jenufa - Peter Hoare, Natalya Romaniw - Grange Park Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Peter Hoare, Natalya Romaniw (Photo Robert Workman)
Everyone has been talking about the new opera house which Grange Park Opera has built in the grounds of West Horsley Place in Surrey. It is indeed a remarkable achievement, a functioning (if not quite complete) theatre built from scratch in a year, and even in its present state the acoustics are very fine indeed. But when we went along for our first visit on Friday 23 June 2017, the performance of Janacek's Jenufa was also very fine indeed, and had us really talking about the music too.

Robin Tebbutt revived Katie Mitchell's 1998 Welsh National Opera production of Jenufa, with designs based on Vicki Mortimer's originals. William Lacey conducted, with the BBC Concert Orchestra in the pit and a very strong and balanced cast; Natalya Romaniw as Jenufa, Susan Bullock as the Kostelnicka, Nicky Spence as Steva, Peter Hoare as Laca, plus Harry Thatcher as Starek, Jihoon Kim as the Mayor, Hanna-Liisa Kirchin as the Mayor's wife, Heather Ireson as Karolka, Alexandra Lowe and Eleanor Garside as mill workers and Jessica Robinson as Tetka. Original lighting by Nigel Edwards revived by Paul Keogan, original choreography by Struan Leslie revived by Lucy Cullingford.

Janacek: Jenufa - Grange Park Opera - Heather Ireson, Jihoon Kim, Nicky Spence, Natatalya Romaniw, Amy Lyddon, Peter Hoare, Harry Thatcher, Anne Marie Owens Susan Bullock, Hanna-Liisa Kirchin (Photo Richard Lewisohn)
Heather Ireson, Jihoon Kim, Nicky Spence, Natatalya Romaniw,
Amy Lyddon, Peter Hoare, Harry Thatcher, Anne Marie Owens
Susan Bullock, Hanna-Liisa Kirchin (photo Richard Lewisohn)
Mortimer and Mitchell set the piece in the 1930s, a world of stripped back rather grey interiors with little colour and no folk-influence. The production is nearly 20 years old, and I have never seen it before but it was striking how many of Mitchell's ideas seem to have permeated more recent productions. Here naturalism and realism took a back seat to a concentration on the characters, with Mitchell and Tebbutt very much creating the family from hell, as each member seems flawed in some way. Grandmother, Anne Marie Owens, is over-indulgent to her favourite grandson, Steva, Nicky Spence, (there was a lovely moment in Act Three when the baby was discovered and Anne Marie Owens look across worriedly to Nicky Spence who furiously shook his head, denying responsibility for the death); Steva is a loutish drunk, getting by on a thread of charm; failed love for Jenufa has made Laca, Peter Hoare, turn vicious; Jenufa herself, Natalya Romaniw is so blinded by her love for Steva that she cannot see sense; the Kostelnicka, Susan Bullock, is so concerned to do right that she forgets to be human and comes across as angry and accusatory.

There has been a tendency in recent years to cast Jenufa with a sort of lyric soprano voice which has difficulty imposing itself on Janacek's rich orchestration. Here, Natalya Romaniw combined a vibrancy of tone with the right lyricism to ensure that Jenufa was a real character in her own right, yet with a voice which soared over the orchestra. She was able to combine the right amount of power and intensity with a poignant lyricism so that the big moments were vibrant, but for the quieter sections in Acts Two and Three she really pulled the heart strings. We have heard Romaniw in a sequence of complex heroines in the last few years and this was another one, she had the gift of making Jenufa interesting and intense even later sections of the opera where she is overlaid with lassitude and depression. Romaniw made Jenufa the centre of attention, without being attention seeking and the final scene with Peter Hoare's Laca was radiantly transformative and transcendent in just the right way.

Romaniw's strength meant that Susan Bullock's vivid and strongly etched Kostelnicka did not simply dominate the proceedings (as has happened in a number of performances recently), and instead this was a very strongly balanced performance. All the cast strongly etched but pulling together as an ensemble.

Janacek: Jenufa - Grange Park Opera - Nicky Spence, Susan Bullock (Photo Richard Lewisohn)
Nicky Spence, Susan Bullock (Photo Richard Lewisohn)
Bullock brilliantly validated the idea that the Kostelnicka should be sung by a soprano rather than a mezzo-soprano. Her opening scenes were full of whiplash responses, with this Elektra and Brunnhilde having no problem commanding the scene, but she was always at the service of the character. We sensed the Kostelnicka's struggle and the need to justify herself; the long solo describing her formed husband was included and whilst this does hold up the action, Bullock really made it tell. Bullock's sense of dramatic pacing in the long second act was superb, rising to the right sense of climax at the end. And in Act Three she was heart-rending. The Kostelnicka is perhaps one of the most fascinating and complex female characters in opera, and I was pleased to be able to experience Bullock performing it at the height of her powers. This performance goes alongside that of Pauline Tinsley (heard with Scottish Opera in 1976) as a touchstone.

This being a Katie Mitchell production, the two male leads were drawn with a wry lack of sympathy (but not grotesquely so, Janacek really does provide all the material). Nicky Spence's Steva was somewhat more subdued than previous productions that we have seen him in, but this was a brilliantly complex piece of dramatisation. This Steva was something of a bully, and very weak, and 'his life and soul of the party' act had a rather nasty edge, particularly when it came to Jenufa. And Spence fell to pieces brilliantly in the cracking Act Two scene with Bullock's Kostelnicka, with Spence using his bulk superbly to suggest the sense of a large man attempting to make himself small and disappear.

Peter Hoare's Laca had an interesting vicious streak, only mitigated by his intense care for Jenufa. This was manifest by the wonderfully heroic tone with which Hoare sang key elements on Laca's music. This was a complex portrayal, a weak man redeemed through the sheer vibrancy of the feeling manifest through music. Hoare's achievement was to create Laca as an ordinary bloke, who achieves the transformative redemption depicted in Janacek's music.

Anne Marie Owens made a strong Grandmother Burya, rather more intensely involved in the action than in some productions, and with the terrible weakness of over partiality to her blood grandson Steva (Laca is her step-grandson). The smaller roles were all strongly cast, and really developed a feeling of community. Harry Thatcher impressed as the mill foreman, both in his strong singing of the role and in the way he created a real sense of character as the man became involved in the actions of his employers. Hanna-Liisa Kirchen and Jihoon Kim were characterful and musical as the mayor and his wife, with Heather Ireson as their daughter making it clear who would wear the trousers when she married Steva.

In the pit, William Lacey drew a strong performance from the BBC Concert Orchestra, ranging from moments of intense drama to the radiance of the end, in Janacek's magical scoring. The balance was excellent, and I never had any worries about the strongly characterised orchestral contribution overwhelming the singers.

I loved some of the details in this production, Kostelnicka spending much of Act Two working on sewing a dress (very much looking like a wedding dress), Jenufa's first cries in this scene from a bed suspended vertically so we could see both Natalya Romaniw and Susan Bullock in the same plane of view, the way Steva's hair seemed to tell the story of the changes in his character / mood.

Grange Park Opera at West Horsley Place - the auditorium (Photo Richard Lewisohn)
Grange Park Opera at West Horsley Place - the auditorium (Photo Richard Lewisohn)
You felt that this revival of Katie Mitchell's production hardly used the full facilities of the stage, after all it would have been created for WNO's old home, the rather cramped New Theatre in Cardiff. But it was a mini-miracle that Grange Park Opera has been able to put on a season at all, and the performances from all concerned ensured that that performance was anything but tired routine.

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