Composer : Leoš Janáček
Libretto: Leoš Janáček after the play by Gabriela Preissova
Director: Tom Cairns
Conductor: Aleksandar Marković
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
Opera North’s visit to The Lowry offers variety if nothing else with a comic opera, a musical and, tonight, a tragedy. Jenůfa is a dark and oppressive tale and no mistake. Composer Leoš Janáček melds a bleak subject with a Baroque, overwrought score that pushes the audience towards emotional overload.
Laca (David Butt Philip) has every reason to be unhappy. The re-marriage of his mother results in his inheritance passing to his step brother Števa (Daniel Norman). In addition to being a spendthrift drunk Števa has impregnated Jenůfa (Ylva Kihlberg) with whom Laca is in love. To preserve her stepdaughter’s reputation Kostelnička (Susan Bickley) devises a desperate plan that has tragic consequences.
The score is certainly powerful but the lack of variety actually reduces the drama of the opera by raising all events to the same emotional pitch. It starts on a thunderous chord and pretty much continues at that level all the way through.
This is exacerbated by conductor Aleksandar Marković occasionally allowing the volume of the music to drown out the vocals.It is only in the third Act,when a degree of subtlety enters the score, that the performers are able to register some individuality and become more engaging. Susan Bickley, contemplating the damnation of Kostelnička, is made all the more powerful by her singing starting without musical backing.
The opera is sung in English but, possibly because of the overwhelming orchestra, requires surtitles. Contary to the melodrama of the story the translation by Otakar Kraus and Edward Downes is disappointingly literal and prosaic. It is hard to relate to characters whose dialogue simply describes the actions they are undertaking.
Tom Cairns goes beyond the rôle of director and undertakes also set and costume design. The set, with floors at awkward angles as in an abstract painting, reflects the disordered minds of the characters. The overall mood, however, is one of weariness. The cast are dressed in drab uniform shades and their actions have a nasty undertone of desperation. Aletta Collins’s choreography, rather than being celebratory, is frantic as if the characters are burning off repressed emotions.
After a couple of hours of unrelenting grimness it is deeply impressive that the subtle interplay between Ylva Kihlberg and David Butt Philip manages to suggest that Jenůfa and Laca will find some relief from their troubles leaving the audience emotionally drained but strangely elated.
Reviewed on 11th November 2015