To make opera more accessible and inviting to new (and younger) audiences – this is the challenging but commendable mission that English National Opera have set themselves. And it has to be said that, so far, a lot has been done in order to achieve this change. From lowering ticket prices to putting on English translations of the classics, they have attempted to open the doors to a once seemingly exclusive medium. But ultimately it is the productions themselves that will seal the deal.
David Alden’s Olivier Award-winning production of Jenufa returns to ENO for the first time since 2009 as the final instalment in their Summer 2016 season. Based on the play Her Stepdaughter by Gabriela Preissova, Jenufa follows the eponymous factory worker (played by Laura Wilde) whose pregnancy outside of wedlock threatens to unleash scandal upon herself, her lover(s), her mother and the entire village community. Over the course of three meticulously structured acts, we watch intrigue turn to shame, shame descend into disgrace and disgrace spiral into tragedy.
Jenufa is an opera that breaks from the traditional form by adhering to certain naturalistic aspects, with some describing it as a piece of “creative realism”. Writer/composer Leos Janacek’s impressive “speech melodies” allow the heart of the opera to sing and the end of each act reaches a blistering, emotional and sonic climax, leaving the audience spellbound because of it. For a piece that treads dangerously close to ‘morality play’ territory, it can never once be accused of sermonising. Instead it offers us a window into a society most likely distant to our own. Alden’s choice to update the opera’s setting to a twentieth century industrial estate in the Eastern Bloc is inspired and heightens the sense of the cold, morbid isolation Jenufa’s community has to endure day in, day out. Before us is a barren environment devoid of colour, in which sympathy cannot grow and the roots of love wither.
Wilde is sensational as Jenufa. Captivating the audience with her first note she effortlessly guides us through the iniquitous wasteland. Her portrayal is genuine and we suffer as she does at the hands of Kostelnicka Buryja played by Michaela Martens. Martens is equally incredible and never has a ‘baddie’ been so readily excused by an audience (and not due to likeable charm). Instead, Marten’s multi-faceted portrayal presents a product of a society that needs to be addressed and countered: she is no typical anti-hero. Other performances of note include the lusty Steva Buryja and pining Luca Klemen played by Nicky Spence and Peter Hoare respectively, as well as Valerie Reid’s Grandmother Buryja who injects a much-needed dose of light comedy here and there, rendering the whole production that bit more human.
Jenufa is a resounding triumph. A harrowing and moving tale powerfully realised by cast, orchestra and creatives alike. It is needless to say that if the shows keep coming like this then ENO can count on the deal being well and truly sealed. I, as a young audience member, loved it. Mission accomplished.
Jenufa is playing the London Coliseum until 8 July. For more information and tickets, see the English National Opera Website. Photo: Donald Cooper