Opera review: Jenůfa, Scottish Opera (4 stars)

Opera review: Jenůfa, Scottish Opera

Scottish Opera sets Janáček classic in rural Ireland at the end of WWI

There is so much to think about in Leoš Janáček’s Jenůfa that it is difficult to know where to begin. On the surface, although none of it is at all superficial, it is a story about love going horribly wrong. Boy meets girl, she gets pregnant, they fall out, stepmother kills baby, girl marries boy’s half-brother who has slashed her face in fit of jealousy.

By setting Scottish Opera’s new production of Jenůfa in rural Ireland around the time of the end of the First World War, director Annilese Miskimmon has hit on a perspective that well fits the opera’s complex balances of relationships. The stigma of being unmarried and having a baby is one that is keenly felt, but it is the power of love – whether Jenůfa’s for the wrong man as the story unfolds, or her forgiveness of her step-mother as the opera comes to its surprisingly optimistic close – that is examined most effectively under Miskimmon’s microscope.

It is a dark piece, and in this co-production with Danish National Opera, there is a real sense of gravitas. As the Kostelnička (the stepmother), soprano Kathryn Harries brings serious dramatic tension to the role, powerfully complemented by Scottish soprano Lee Bisset as Jenůfa, to transmit the unbearable feelings of loss and desolation. The brothers, Števa and Laca, played by Sam Burness and Peter Wedd, are disarmingly true to life.

Janáček’s lavish orchestral writing provides much of the turbulent energies, although, under conductor Stuart Stratford, the Orchestra of Scottish Opera sounds overwhelming for some of the singing at times. With design by Nicky Shaw, the set provides a domestic intimacy that drew the audience into what is overall a superbly strong production from the Scottish / Danish partnership. Let’s hope this might be a start in bringing more Janáček back to the Scottish Opera stage.

Reviewed at Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Sat 18 Apr 2015.

Scottish Opera: Jenufa

Janáček’s Jenůfa is a powerful and brutally unsentimental tale of child murder in a small Czech town, but it manages to take the grimmest subject matter and make it curiously redemptive. Lee Bisset plays the title character, alongside Peter Wedd and Kathryn Harries. Stuart Stratford conducts.

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