Sunday 10 October 2021

Intense and redemptive: Janacek's Jenůfa in the new production at Covent Garden

Janacek: Jenůfa - Asmik Grigorian - Royal Opera House (Photo Tristram Kenton/ROH)
Janacek: Jenůfa - Asmik Grigorian - Royal Opera House (Photo Tristram Kenton/ROH)

Janacek Jenůfa; Asmik Grigorian, Karita Mattila, Nicky Spence, Saimir Pirgu, dir: Claus Guth, cond: Henrik Nanasi; Royal Opera House

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 9 October 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The abstract nature of Claus Guth's new production leave space for some remarkably powerful performances

For all its status as a masterpiece, Janacek's Jenůfa does not perform itself, it requires strong hands on stage and in the pit, from director and musical director, to ensure the best of the opera reveals itself. Claus Guth's new production at Covent Garden takes a daringly abstract view of the work, Guth allows space for some terrific performances to develop. We caught the fourth performance of Claus Guth's production of Janacek's Jenůfa (his first production of a Janacek opera) at the Royal Opera House on Saturday 9 October 2021, Asmik Grigorian was Jenůfa, Karita Mattila was Kostelnicka, Saimir Pirgu was Steva and Nicky Spence was Laca. Henrik Nanasi conducted, and set designs were by Michael Levine, costumes by Gesine Völlm, video by Rocafilm.

In an article in the programme book, Claus Guth talks about bringing out the universality of the story, so the setting is strikingly non-specific and a weakness of Act One is that we never really understand who these people are. Certainly the Burjya family is all very well dressed and Elena Zilio's Grandmother Buryjovka is positively grand. There is no mill, instead round the edge of the large performing space, we had the regimentation of everyday life (the men in bed, the women peeling potatoes). The dancing in Act One was particularly grim, and there seemed a danger of the characters disappearing into the 'konzept'. But for Act Two, Guth and Levine cleared everything away. The frames of the beds from Act One formed Kostelnicka's house, looking both like a prison and an abstract installation. Throughout this Act, the presence of the villagers was made physical, perhaps in too intrusive a way and certainly the huge raven (product of Jenůfa's overheated imagination?) felt a bit too much. But here, and in Act Three, Guth allowed space for things to happen, to develop and was not frightened of clearing things away.

Janacek: Jenůfa - Saimir Pirgu, Karita Mattila - Royal Opera House (Photo Tristram Kenton/ROH)
Janacek: Jenůfa - Saimir Pirgu, Karita Mattila - Royal Opera House (Photo Tristram Kenton/ROH)

I have to confess that I found the iconography of the production somewhat reductive, and feel that Guth needs to trust his audiences more; we can certainly posit the universality of themes present to us from an early 20th century Czech village or wherever. There was one slightly worrying visual element. Costumes were highly realistic, from the period of the opera's creation, yet Jenůfa's bed-wear in Act Two was a simple, very revealing slip that seemed an unnecessary element of sexualisation of the character.

Asmik Grigorian made a stunning Jenůfa, slim and controlled, she shaped each phrase and brought a remarkable sense of focused intensity to the role. Her scenes in Act Two had an almost unbearable intensity, partly because Guth's staging allowed Grigorian to be somewhat more liberated physically than some more realistic depictions. Grigorian is a former lyric soprano who has moved into heavier territory (Marietta in Korngold's Die tote Stadt, Richard Strauss' Salome and Senta in Wagner's The Flying Dutchman), and she sang with a sense of elegant focus. This is not a refulgent voice, but was highly expressive and there was never a sense of her getting lost in the rich orchestration, and this sense of poise and control seemed central to Grigorian's performance.

A fine Jenufa herself, Karita Mattila made a striking Kostelnicka, a powerful portrayal which did not pull focus, so that we had a balanced pairing of daughter and step-mother, and in many ways Grigorian's daughter was in the same image as her step-mother, as portrayed by Mattila, the two had the same sense of control, dignity and focused intensity. Which makes it all the more shocking when Mattila's Kostelnicka had her 'mad scene' at the end of Act Two. Vocally, I found Mattila (a former soprano) somewhat less whiplash intense than previous incumbents of the role (Susan Bickley, Susan Bullock and Pauline Tinsley for example), but Henrik Nanasi's quite refulgent approach in the orchestra might have also been to blame. Mattila' final scene, where Guth cleared everything away except the necessary, was profoundly moving in terms of drama, singing and the expressivity of body language.

Janacek: Jenůfa - Jeremy White, Karita Mattila, Asmik Grigorian, Nicky Spence - Royal Opera House (Photo Ivor Kerslake/ROH)
Janacek: Jenůfa - Jeremy White, Karita Mattila, Asmik Grigorian, Nicky Spence - Royal Opera House (Photo Ivor Kerslake/ROH)

The two men in Jenůfa's life were superbly contrasted both physically and vocally. Samir Pirgu's Steve was a wonderfully elegant slime-ball, physically and vocally attractive yet always more concerned for himself. There was something a little set-back about Pirgu's performance, looking on rather than participating, thinking of himself. By contrast, Nicky Spence's Laca was highly physical not to say almost clumsy. Spence has sung Steva at English National Opera and Grange Park Opera, and here 'graduated' brilliantly to Laca, making him sympathetic but complex. 

Jenufa is an opera where we see people through their interactions with others, so that Kostelnicka's character is revealed through her intervention in the jollity in Act One. Mattila's performance here and in Act Two was highly revealing, and the scenes in Act Two where she successively talked to Pirgu's Steva and Spence's Laca were intense, neither was simple and of course Steva's refusal to accept his half-brother's bastard child is central to the plot. 

Then at the end of Act Three, after Mattila's final scene, the closing scene for just Spence and Grigorian was completely devastating. Both singers conveyed so much with so little, an economy of gesture both in physical and vocal terms, yet the result was powerfully moving particularly when combined with Henrik Nanasi's approach to Janacek's original orchestration here.

The remaining cast members were strong indeed. In Act One, it wasn't always clear who all these people were, yet each was etched strongly. Elena Zilio was a powerful, not to say vicious Grandmother and certainly this family seemed to go in for strong, intimidating women. In Act Three, we did have the folk-element which had been missing earlier, bringing some welcome colour and enabling Jeremy White and Helene Schneiderman as the Mayor and his wife to give us a striking cameo. Jacquelyn Stucker's Karolka was also delightfully portrayed, certainly she was going to be no meek wife for Steva. Yaritza Veliz made a charmingly lively Jana (given a sex-change from the libretto), with David Stout as a strong foreman. Other cast members included April Koyejo-Audiger as the servant girl Barena, Angela Simkin as a herdswoman, and Renata Skarelyte as Aunt.

The chorus were in good form, providing strong vocal and visual counterpart to the drama. In the pit, Henrik Nanasi drew a rich, refulgent tone from the orchestra, almost belying the edge in Janacek's score, certainly the opening of the opera seemed more romantic and less neurotic than usually. But the result was richly expressive, and incredibly finely played. Throughout the evening, I constantly noticed details in the orchestra, right up to the final scene when the violin melody appeared in a way which was simple, yet richly expressive.

I still remain in two minds about Claus Guth's production, particularly the first act, but there is no doubt that he has allowed space for some remarkable performances, and what was notable about the evening was the balance between the characters, each one in just the right focus, with Henrik Nanasi and the orchestra forming an extra character as complement.

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