Shrinking Jenufa

Shrinking Jenufa


norman lebrecht

March 13, 2009

It’s an opera that never fails.


Leos Janacek’s psychodrama of a foster mother who murders her stepdaughter’s illegitimate baby in order to protect her marriage chances united performers and audience in a communion of grief and horror. Tears are shed in all parts of the house, including the orchestra pit. Jenufa, created in 1904, is the first reality opera, a slice of everyone’s life.


David Alden’s production at English National Opera strips it back to the core relationship between two women and clarifies the back story by selective analyis, much in the way a good therapist would do. The men in the story are portrayed as awful and inadequate. Steva, the mill-owner who gets Jenufa pregnant, is a swaggering wastrel with the attention span of a farmyard chicken. Laca, his half-brother, is a social reject with domestic violence issues. Neither will ever find contentment. Jenufa is just a morsel in their path.


Janacek’s original title, Her Foster-Daughter, says it all. This is an opera about an adult’s dilemma, not the pain of young love. Jenufa, sung with beautiful restraint by the leading British soprano Amanda Roocroft, is not so much innocent as immature. Her stepmother, the formidable American Michaela Martens, is the moral authority of the village. Jenufa cannot grow up so long as her guardian takes all the decisions. Only when the older women commits a terrible crime can Jenufa find her own light.


Of all the Jenufas I have seen, David Alden’s retelling is one that will not fade. Set in 1950s Czechoslovakia, it enjoys strong casting – Tom Randle as Steva, Robert Brubaker as Laca and many engaging cameos. The young Norwegian conductor, Eivind Gullberg Jensen (bookmark that name), displays a fine sensitivity for balance and rhythm. He gives the singers all the time they need for self-expression without permitting a nanosecond of self-indulgence.


The show was built around Roocroft who used it to announce her triumphant recovery from a mid-career dip. She may lack the Stanislavsky extremes of delight and sorrow, but a semi-muted emotional range in a landscape that is bleak rather than harsh was exactly what this production called for and Roocroft filled the role to overflowing. Hers is a Jenufa redefined for our present moral confusions.