Music: Leoš Janáček
Director: Tom Cairns
Choreographer: Aletta Collins
Conductor: Aleksander Markovićl
Reviewer: Tom Tollett
In these cash-strapped times, Opera North are discovering a plethora of wonders at the back of the drawer. Recently, the welcome re-vamp of Giles Havergal’s production of The Barber of Seville from 1986 and now, Tom Cairns’ equally memorable 1995 Jenůfa. It is said that Rossini’s masterpiece took two weeks to write, yet Janáček agonised for fully nine years, forging his first successful opera in what proved to be his recognised mature style. He was already 50 years of age.
Here, incisively etched into our brains, are the elements for the composer’s hard-edged exploration of humanity’s dark side: the veristic melodising of the speaking voice in all its emotional states, the heightening of tension through short motifs and high instrumental writing and the soothing by folkmusic. Janáček’s everyday village folk chatter, bicker and love, but beneath this are darker deeds.
A disquieting obsession with water, the fluid harmonic shifts from the orchestra and an off-stage xylophone’s sinister six-note figuration in the prologue set the tone. Ed Lyon’s heroic Laca has a supremely expressive high range, capable of soaring triumphantly over any orchestra. The Orchestra of Opera North are brilliantly savage in conductor’s Aleksandar Marković’s penetrating reading, but, at times, simply a little too loud for some of the voices. Similarly talented, David Butt Philip, as local flame Števa, brings off admirably that abiding operatic headache of singing when supposedly drunk. Audience boos at the curtain call were a worthy testament to his convincing villainous characterisation.
Of the women, Elizabeth Sikora, as the matriarch Buryjovka retains a distinguished, bright top vocal range, tellingly effective in her alternating scolding and consoling attributes. Swedish-born Ylva Kihlberg, in the title rôle, displays the necessary command of the part’s extremes, the feminine gentleness, the earnest loving nature and the near-insanity that tragic loss brings her. Nevertheless, Janáček’s unbending demands push her to the limits vocally.
The redoubtable Susan Bickley, as the overbearing Kostelnička, seizes the foremost stardom opportunity of the night. Her Act II soliloquy is a riveting piece of theatre, leaving the audience feeling somewhat emotionally drained. The crazed rationalisation of what she is about to do cannot be justified either as familial love or parental duty. Her logic is unimpeachable, her motives eminently understandable and her proposed remedy to Jenůfa’s plight an act of pitiless barbarity.
Tom Cairns’ highly-angular sets, uncluttered to the point of minimalist, are built to such an extreme rake that objects pivoting on tables can slip off, if left without adequate security. The cast manages the inclines with creditable aplomb.
Although Leoš Janáček was born in 1854, he is still considered a modern composer. Partly responsible for this apparent dichotomy, is the fact that it took Western Europe many years to discover his art. In recent times, Opera North has built up a formidable reputation for producing his operas, and this current venture remains a perfect example of the meticulous endeavour which typifies them. Highly recommended.
Runs until 28 October 2015 | Image: Richard H Smith