Jen?fa, ENO

Adam Silverman’s lighting emphasises this volatility and
vulnerability. The flicker of an off-stage neon light permeates Act 1;
unsettling chiaroscuro effects destabilise throughout, complementing the
abrupt shifts and contrasts of Jan·?ek’s score. The latent violence
and the unavoidable tragedy that will ensue are signalled when, at the
start of Act 1, the black back-drop slashes open to reveal a glaring white
expanse: in this image we may see the sharp edge of Laca’s knife, or
perhaps the watery expanse of the river in which the Kostelni?ka will drown
Jen?fa’s child.

Alden re-locates the action of Act 1 from rural, nineteenth-century
Moravia to a run-down factory yard on an Eastern European industrial
estate, in the fairly recent past. The grey, sparse, corrugated coldness is
alienating. We are denied a sense of a community in which ancestral
relationships, historic contracts and unsettled grievances continue to
exert an influence in the present. But, despite the realism of the play –
Gabriela Preissov·’s Her Foster-Daughter ≠– from which the
opera was derived, specificity of time and place is not really so
important. Jan·?ek is more concerned with the search for psychological and
dramatic truth, and the depiction of character: his opera stresses the
human elements of the drama, in contrast to the more candid realism of
Preissov·’s evocation of village life.

So, fittingly, Alden presents us with a barren world which will nurture
nothing. Both landscape and hearts are sterile: Jen?fa’s fragile
rosemary plant – representative of her oneness with the natural world –
struggles to survive in its pot, placed at the front-centre of the stage,
symbolic of the hopes that will stagnate or languish here.

Acts 2 and 3 take us into the Kostelni?ka’s austere, blanched
apartment. The wallpaper is peeling, the tattered shutters hold back the
light; the sloping ceiling seems to lour, oppressively stifling the air.
Only a Virgin in a shabby niche alleviates the desolation.

The changes that Jan·?ek made to Preissov·’s drama when
formulating the libretto, push Jen?fa – rather than her step-mother, the
sanctimonious sextoness – to centre-stage: it is her spiritual maturation
that is at the heart of the opera and which ensures that forgiveness rather
than vengeance prevails. In the title role, American soprano Laura Wilde
was a revelation. Making her European debut, Wilde sang with a radiant,
richly textured soprano and displayed considerable acting skills. Currently
in her final year of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Young Artists’
programme, the soprano is undoubtedly one to watch. She demonstrated a full
tone and unwavering steadiness at the top – important given that the score
lingers in the higher registers.

This was a breathtakingly honest performance; Jen?fa’s openness
was utterly credible and her growing maturity compelling. When she insisted
that Laca forgive äteva, and when she herself absolved her own step-mother,
she was neither superficial nor saintly – just a real woman who has learned
that it is suffering that brings moral understanding and certainty. In the
closing scenes we may have sensed Jen?fa’s exhaustion – as she tries
to persuade Laca to leave her the fragile vocal line fragments – but at the
close she was calm and strong, her voice flushed with optimism.

American mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens returned to reprise the role of
Kostelni?ka. In Act 1 she had a tendency to stand motionless, presumably to
convey the contemptuous self-righteousness that underpins her authority.
This was not ineffective, but we need to know what’s going on inside
her mind and soul: to see, from the start, that this is a woman who is
capable of killing her step-daughter’s baby. However, in Act 2, the
faÁade dissolved. Martens conveyed the Kostelni?ka’s chilling
censoriousness but also allowed us a glimpse of her humanity: she does not
want Jen?fa to suffer as she did, for äteva so resembles his uncle, and her
vulnerability was painfully evident when she begged äteva to marry her
step-daughter and acknowledge his son.

At first I thought that she seemed a little too young for the role, but
Martens used her hard-edged tone and incisive delivery to imbue the vocal
lines with unnerving declamatory power. The central act, though less
visually and dramatically colourful than the framing acts, was truly the
emotional core, and when the Kostelni?ka carried the child to its death her
hysterical quasi-laughter formed a terrible juxtaposition with the kneeling
Jen?fa’s quiet prayer to the Virgin.

Jen?fa both unites and divides the two half-brothers: her beauty
frustrates Laca but it is also what äteva desires to control. Nicky Spence
conveyed all of äteva’s swaggering arrogance – the production
doesn’t make clear from whence his wealth comes, but he clearly has
both money and luck. But, at the day of reckoning the bold brashness
disintegrated to reveal the cad’s essential cowardice and weakness.
Spence’s powerful tenor had firmness and directness, and he
effortlessly breezed through Jan·?ek’s lyrical melodies.

Peter Hoare was tremendous as Laca, his distasteful violence tempered by
undeniable nobility and frailty. Hoare’s tenor was a darker
counterpoint to Spence’s, and Laca’s agitation and distress
drove the drama forward, just as they warped his essential decency.

Brittle ‘light relief’ was provided by
Natalie Herman’s grisly Mayor’s Wife and the spry
Grandmother Burya of Valerie Reid who flung out proverbs and clichÈs as
adeptly as she wielded her handbag. Graeme Danby made, in such a small
role, a surprisingly strong impression as the Foreman.

Jan·?ek doesn’t give the chorus much to do – the composer removed
some ensembles (along with text repetitions) during his 1908 revisions, as
they held up the action and were unnaturalistic – but Alden makes their
moments tell. When they smash through the windows of the
Kostelni?ka’s apartment in Act 3, literally ripping the walls
asunder, we know that we’ve reached breaking point. And, the
mill-girls’ song in the same act, whose text treats a mother-daughter
relationship and depicts the breaking away from parental domination,
established the unity of village’s voice.

Conductor Mark Wigglesworth takes a slow burn approach, and the drama
moves unhurriedly but surely to its fervent denouement (the performance
lasted 30 minutes longer than the advertised running time). The gradual
accumulation of tension is terrible in its inexorability. However, I was
less persuaded by the ‘romanticisation’ of Jan·?ek’s
sound-world. Yes, the ENO Orchestra played with beguiling beauty of tone
and sumptuousness of texture. But, the unalleviated mellifluousness did not
take account of the score’s emotive contrasts, acerbity and silkiness
lying side by side.

This was particularly noticeable in Acts 2 and 3 (there were five years
between Acts 1 and 2). There is indeed great beauty in the score, but
Jan·?ek uses it for expressive purposes; there must be contrast for its
impact to be felt. Indeed, the composer’s most powerful way of
describing emotional states is through contrast. The ecstasies are

In order to secure a performance in Prague, Jan·?ek had been forced to
agree to conductor Karel Kova?ovic’s revisions: Kova?ovic ironed out
irregularities of rhythm and harmony, doubled vocal lines, added lots of
horn passages (Jan·?ek preferred trombones) and removed overlapping voice
parts; it was not until the 1980s, when John Tyrell restored the
composer’s original intentions, that Jan·?ek’s real voice was
heard. And, it is a voice that requires more snarl from the brass, more
spikiness in the motivic repetitions, greater schism between contrasting
instrumental colours.

Carl Dahlhaus wrote that, ‘In contrast to Wagner, who keeps up the
running commentary on the unfolding drama, Jan·?ek is not present in his
own person or discoursing in his own words; he is more like an observer,
standing back unnoticed behind what he has to show us, which reveals itself
in its own terms’. On one level, this production seems to stand back
and reveal the prevailing sense of guilt: Jen?fa’s guilt about her
pregnancy, äteva’s remorse when confronted with fatherhood, the
stinging regret of the Kostelni?ka’s confession in the final Act.

But, Alden shows us that the characters are never isolated in their
torments; the drama is one of human interaction, conflict and
reconciliation. And, while realists among contemporary critics may have
worried about the optimistic ending of Preissov·’s play, here the
final, heart-wrenching embrace of Laca and Jen?fa heals all wounds.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production details:

Jen?fa – Laura Wilde, Kostelni?ka – Michaela Martens, Laca – Peter
Hoare, äteva – Nicky Spence, Grandmother Buryja – Valerie Reid, Mill
Foreman/Mayor – Graeme Danby, Mayor’s Wife – Natalie Herman, Karolka
– Soraya Mafi, Jano – Sarah Labiner; conductor – Mark Wigglesworth,
director – David Alden, set designer – Charles Edwards, costume designer –
Jon Morrell, lighting designer – Adam Silverman, original choreographer –
Claire Glaskin, revival choreographer – Maxine Braham, Orchestra and Chorus
of English National Opera.

English National Opera, Coliseum, London; Thursday 23rd June

image_description=ENO, Jenufa (Laura Wilde)
product_title=Jen?fa, ENO
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above image courtesy ENO (c) Donald-Cooper