ENO Response 2023/24: Jenufa

16th April 2024 in News

ENO Response is a scheme that offers aspiring writers the opportunity to review opera whilst receiving writing advice and feedback from industry mentors.

David Alden’s double Olivier award-winning ‘emotionally shattering’ (The Times) production of Janáček’s Jenůfa returns to the London Coliseum for the first time since 2016, when it was deemed ‘an unmissable show’ by the Evening Standard.

Based on the original late nineteenth century play by Gabriela Preissová, Jenůfa explores honour, love and sacrifice against the backdrop of a small, claustrophobic community and tangled family relationships. Alden updates the opera’s original setting from a traditional Moravian village to an isolated twentieth century industrial estate in the Eastern Bloc.

Leoš Janáček (1854-1928)
Libretto by Leoš Janáček
Based upon the play Její pastorkyňa by Gabriela Preissová

Conductor, Keri-Lynn Wilson
Director, David Alden

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Oscar Cunnington
Jenůfa’s beauty remains in-tact despite an uneven production

From the piercing cowbell seconds into the ENO’s Jenůfa, you’re aware that Leoš Janáček’s 1904 opera is a little different. Bold, iconoclastic and creative, it’s an incredible foundation for any production and an inherently challenging piece to match. Unfortunately, David Alden’s revival of his double Olivier-award winning 2006 production failed to meet the moment and was ultimately carried by the remarkable score and some talented singers.

The story, based on the play ‘Její pastorkyňa’ by Gabriela Preissová, is a harrowing investigation into the shadows beneath an ultra-conservative society via the desperate journey of the titular Jenůfa. Pregnant by the leather-jacketed local heart-throb, Števa, adored (and abused) by his half-brother Laca and under the firm stewardship of her stepmother, Kostelnička, Jenůfa is isolated from her community and at their mercy.

A truly tragic deed powers the plot from the second acts onwards. Even by opera’s rather loose standards of realism, the third and final act contains a scene of forgiveness that might confound even the most merciful of audience members. Ultimately, the story is captivating and has enough raw emotion and unpicking of societal conservatism to make it relevant today. The challenge comes in how Alden told it.

One noticeable decision was to wrench the opera from its original setting in a rural Moravian village and dump it (according to the programme notes) in an anonymous Eastern Bloc at some point in the 20th century. The staging felt lifeless and took the Soviet barren aesthetic so far as to strip any real sense of place from the production.

The subdued attitude carried into the direction, taking power away from the emotional set pieces. Moments that should have been emotional crescendos were understated by the performers, meaning that some were confusing and most simply underbaked such as Laca’s first-act attack on Jenůfa. The performers weren’t given license to really inhabit the spartan stage giving a tawdry domesticity to key conflicts that stood in real contrast to the thundering music that strained to give gravitas to every scene.

And it was the music that really powered this production. Conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson grappling with Janáček’s constantly shifting score was the evening’s most exciting head-to-head. She led the orchestra, with an especially impressive strings section, masterfully as they shifted between moods and tones, providing everything from pastoral backdrops to awe-inspiring dread.

They were aided with aplomb by a fantastic-sounding cast. Soprano Jennifer Davis convinced as Jenůfa and brought out the best of her co-stars in the many duets and trios. John Findon and Richard Trey Smagur both brought a searing presence to the Števa and Laca roles respectively. But it was soprano Susan Bullock as Kostelnička who really impressed. She brought a genuine humanity to her character’s awful deed, delivering chilling arias that translated the inner turmoil into painful remorse.

It was a shame that this Jenůfa ultimately proved so frustrating, but it was a credit to the cast and orchestra that that frustration was rooted in the very obvious, but unrealised, potential here.


Chloe Sit
The ENO’s Jenůfa Just Misses the Mark

The ENO’s spring season continues with Janáček’s Jenůfa, a harrowing tale of infanticide, redemption, and the lengths a mother will go to in order to survive. David Alden’s revival relocates the setting from the original Moravian village to industrial estate, opening with a bleak, grim factory and its plainly-dressed inhabitants. Charles Edwards’ sets work well as storytelling elements, featuring claustrophobic walls converging towards the back of the stage and windowpanes that rattle and shatter during the opera’s climax – though the slanted floor does seem to inconvenience the singers. Keri-Lynn Wilson conducts a quirky, vibrant score, yet the music often overpowers the singers, especially in the first act.

We meet bookish Jenůfa (Jennifer Davis), her bright blue dress the only thing that makes her stand out from the ensemble; Grandmother Buryja (Fiona Kimm), whose authority as a factory owner is emphasised more in dialogue than actual presence on stage, being confined to a booth for much of the performance; and adopted grandson Laca Klemeň (Richard Trey Smagur), whose gawky bitterness and unrepenting violence make his eventual match with Jenůfa a jarring one.

Overall the acting, along with a rather tame portrayal of deadbeat father Števa (John Findon), did little to convey the true horror of the situation. It’s moments of poignant stillness which let you sit with the horrific grief after the characters come to devastating realisations. Instead, everyone in Jenůfa seems in a hurry to move on. Jenůfa gets over the news of Števa abandoning her and the death of her baby fairly quickly, and immediately warms to the idea of marrying Laca, whose kind words surely do not compensate for him slashing her cheek open just a few scenes ago. The cry that Davis lets out at the revelation that her mother drowned her newborn, too, lacks the same anguish as Ofwarren’s blood-curdling scream in The Handmaid’s Tale. Perhaps the only sympathetic portrayal was Kostelnička Buryja’s (Susan Bullock), a masterful mix of commanding, desperate, and guilty. The scene of her staring blankly into the audience at Jenůfa’s wedding, traumatised at what she’d done, painted a particularly convincing picture – of a mother forced to do the unthinkable, sacrificing one child for the salvation of another.

Tragedy flows through Jenůfa – which makes it all the more disappointing how understated its heavy themes are. We don’t see Števa’s realisation of the fatal role he played in his child’s death, it’s never acknowledged that Jenůfa essentially chooses between marrying two stepbrothers, and Jenůfa’s lacklustre reactions severely undermine the opera’s message of the hypocrisy of a society in which women with illegitimate children are humiliated, shunned, and made to bear the blame alone.

Despite a plot and libretto with so much potential, Jenůfa sadly falls short in this production. The unlikable characters, acting, and pacing made it impossible to be drawn into this world. Intentional or not, it is ironic that the only character I eventually found myself sympathising with was the child killer.


Jack Reilly
David Alden’s Jenůfa a heart-shattering triumph, despite the empty seats

That Janáček’s first operatic masterpiece played to a half-empty Coliseum (the Upper Circle and Balcony being shut) is confounding. Not only is the work itself one of the finest operatic essays of the early 20th century, honest and unadorned in its presentation of peasant life, but its performance by ENO in David Alden’s production is one of intense, shattering emotional immediacy.

Updated in setting from a Moravian village to an Eastern European industrial estate in the late 20th century, Alden’s approach to this grimly naturalistic opera is epitomised in the manner he opens each of the three acts – in pitch darkness. The lighter aspects are completely abandoned. The folk dances of the first and third acts are thrilling to behold, but are more wildly debauched than merry; the chorus is as threatening a body in the celebrations of Act I as it is in the mob scene of Act III. A sense of entrapment imbues the sets. The stage floor is slanted drastically upwards as it recedes from the audience. This is uncomfortable enough in the open-air setting of Act I, but is made terribly claustrophobic within Jenůfa’s apartment in the latter two acts, its low ceiling (the unused upper two thirds of the stage’s lateral space are plunged into darkness) colliding with the sloping floor to create a cage-like point; these characters are trapped, trapped within a regressive society whose social mores drive them to terrible things. The whole provides a perfect backdrop to the most uncomfortable aspects of Janáček’s opera.

The cast is a powerhouse of dramatic as well as musical genius. Irish soprano Jennifer Davis makes her role debut as Jenůfa, and singles herself out as both a singer and actor of immense range, capable of transforming her voice, beautiful in every register at every dynamic, into a hysteric scream with formidable dramatic conviction. A similar range is to be found in dramatic soprano Susan Bullock’s portrayal of the Kostelnička. Bullock commands audience attention with every word and gesture, each delivered with utmost clarity and sense of meaning; her performance of Act II’s end sent chills down my spine.

Alongside these two formidable soprano roles we find two formidable tenor roles, the naïve Laca and the inconstant Števa, played by Richard Trey Smagur and John Findon respectively. Smagur’s bright lyric tenor contrasts marvellously with the darker, more “heroic” tone of Findon, highlighting the essential differences in their characters. Smagur’s turn as Laca is marked by a remarkable physicality – he plays the role with a certain lumbering, child-like clumsiness, which nevertheless can erupt into powerfully violent outbursts. Under it all is the ENO Orchestra, under the baton of Keri-Lynn Wilson, who render Janáček’s score with what must be the most thrillingly raw energy I have ever heard emanate from the Coliseum pit. It is a performance that delivers heart-shattering drama with full conviction – despite the considerable number of empty seats in the house, the performance was met with the most enthusiastic reception from the audience that was there.


Hannah Bentley
Harrowing and heart breaking

From the first bar to the very last note, tension builds continually in English National Opera’s compelling production of Leos Janáček‘s Jenůfa. Keri-Lynn Wilson’s razor-sharp conducting and David Alden’s perceptive direction ensure the tragic tale of love rivalry, family turmoil and small-town hysteria keeps the audience gripped as the plot unfolds.

Janáček packs the score with musical metaphors from the beginning, the tension established by an ominous, insistent xylophone, which Alden matches with flashes from a welding torch, deep inside a gloomy factory. We are in Communist-era Czechoslovakia and Jenůfa has fallen pregnant with her drunk, cheating boyfriend, Števa. In a society still deeply Catholic her stepmother Kostelnička decides there is only one, fatal way out to avoid her neighbour’s condemnation, while at the same time forcing Jenůfa to marry Steva’s stepbrother, Laca. Kostelnička’s devastating brutality is eventually revealed, leading to her downfall.

Alden has the uncanny knack of representing the psychological state of the characters through the opera’s set. In this intelligent re-telling, Charles Edwards’ design plays with the dimensions of Jenůfa’s home, where the windows are cracked and faded wallpaper peels off the warped walls. It’s a physical representation of the dysfunctional relationship between stepmother and daughter.

A small plaster Virgin Mary sits in a niche in the room and Alden draws a parallel between Jenůfa and Mary, dressing Jenůfa in blue and bathing her in blue light when she learns of her son’s death.

Irish soprano Jennifer Davis, blessed with excellent diction, makes every moment of Jenůfa’s despair unbearably painful. Her mellifluous voice and commitment to character gave me goosebumps several times.

The heartthrob of the town, Števa, (John Findon), rolls onto the stage on his motorbike joined by the vodka-drinking, sex-crazed chorus. He’s dressed like a T-Bird from Grease, with heavily gelled hair and a black leather jacket. There is a lot of power in his tenor voice, particularly when he sings of Jenůfa’s beautiful ‘rosy apple cheeks’. He certainly had me blushing.

Laca is a complex, emotionally awkward man, in love with Jenůfa but unable to express himself. In his raging jealousy of his brother Števa he injures Jenůfa and is shocked and ashamed at what he has done. Richard Trey Smagur – a force on stage – gave a touching portrayal of this damaged personality, demanding the audience’s attention with his rich tenor.

On opening night there were clunky moments of melodrama with the chorus, and although Susan Bullock is a fierce Kostelnička with a steely soprano voice, she was often overpowered by the weighty orchestra. Nonetheless, I left the Coliseum dazed after spending nearly three hours in Jenůfa’s harrowing world.


Pau Hernández Santamaria
Nerves on edge in an operatic thriller

There are very few operas that have the dramatic force that Jenůfa has. It may be the rawness with which Czech composer Janáček depicts the community where the story takes place, the undeniable humanity of their characters or the permanent sadness that shrouds Jenůfa and her family; but I can’t watch any version of this opera without having a lump in my throat. David Alden, who achieved a great result with his Peter Grimes earlier this season, does it again with an excellent production that does justice to one of the best operas of the early 20th century.

I must admit, however, that it does need a little bit of help from each audience member. The first act can put many people off because its slow development and lack of clarity in some key scenes can make it seem a bit uninteresting, but as the plot goes on it improves massively and it’s impossible not to feel attached to what’s going on in stage. The ENO orchestra, brilliantly conducted by Keri-Lynn Wilson, showcases one of its best performances so far this season. They create a mood of uncertainty and abstractness most of the time, perfectly matching the atmosphere provided by the story. Only when a true feeling is shown the music becomes extremely beautiful and emotional, as in the beginning of the second act.

Susan Bullock (Kostelnička) is one of the main reasons to see this production, as she is impeccable in everything she needs to, from her diction to her stage presence. Her first appearance exhibits an almost frightening authority and her performance during the second act won’t be forgotten for a while. Excellent singing, projection and commitment while her character fights against her own religious moral to keep what she values the most, her honour, by hiding Jenůfa during the latter’s pregnancy. Jennifer Davis (Jenůfa) displays an equally convincing depiction of a woman mistreated by society and blinded by love. The contrast between those two characters is another positive achievement of the production. The Kostelnička is a heavily damaged individual whose past experiences have turned her into a conflicted being that prefers to psychologically torture her beloved stepdaughter before losing their reputation, and Jenůfa only seeks true love and happiness with her son. Both singers are aware of those feelings and their interactions are truly engaging.

John Findon (Steva) and Richard Trey Smagur (Laca) support the action with solid performances of their roles as Jenůfa’s love interests. Smagur’s development is well-executed: he starts as a clumsy and creepy character whose envy restrict him and evolves into a noble man with genuine love towards Jenůfa. He keeps getting better vocally as the opera advances, showing a lyrical voice that travels really well.

As a whole, ENO’s Jenufa is a powerful production that manages to show all the strong points present in the material. The extreme realism is there, particularly in a superb second half where our nerves go on edge after a slightly disappointing first half.


Sophie Carlin
Though Janáček’s music, stunning as ever, is always worth your while, ENO’s Jenůfa is a little muddled and untidy

What would you do for love? Or reputation? Can, or should we forgive those who’d do the very most? Jenůfa, directed by David Alden – back at the ENO, with the same bleak, bleary colour palette as his season-opener Peter Grimes – asks all this, and more.

Czech composer Leoš Janáček’s tragic opera follows the titular character, hidden away by her stepmother, the Kostelnička (not her name, but meaning ‘elder’) – Jenůfa is, scandalously, about to have a child conceived outside marriage. Concerned for all their reputations (and worried it might stop Jenůfa’s fiancé, unaware of the child, from marrying Jenůfa), the Kostelnička secretly kills the infant. But these truths won’t stay hidden.

It’s a joy to be reminded of how amazing Janáček’s score is. At one point, the Kostelnička cries “Jenůfa”, then her three-syllable melody echoes throughout the subsequent orchestration. In Act 1, Jenůfa says she’d kill herself without the father of her child. But the music here is tender and mellow, creating an overriding romantic tone. Janáček invites us to feel this is, overall, a romantic moment, distracting us with the music’s beauty from how troubling, dark and dysfunctional Jenůfa’s words are. We are deluded – just as true lovers often are.

That said, ENO’s delivery of Janáček’s opera still needs some fine-tuning. There were, sadly, some serious balance issues at points, with several soloists drowned out. This wasn’t the only untidiness – something wasn’t quite right with the lighting either. The attempt to cast meaningful shadows on the right-angled back set piece of Acts 2 and 3 misfired slightly – distorted, overlapping, seemingly meaningless and random shadows emerged sometimes instead. But, of course, these may be opening night teething problems which straighten out over time.

Susan Bullock (the Kostelnička) was excellent. She uses a full sliding scale of tones, from screaming, to her full-bodied singing voice, to fading out into stutters. Her Act 2 monologue, when murder is chosen, could have seen the momentum wane, with Bullock alone onstage. But instead, she commanded the stage, dramatically and vocally.

Beyond these specific moments, it’s interesting to ask questions of Alden’s broader creative vision of the opera too. So many of the composition’s most emotional moments are highly-aestheticized and over-wrought. Act 2 ends with a loud, high note from the Kostelnička. Though Alden has Jennifer Davis as Jenůfa throw herself against the wall, she then sings, rather than screams, when learning of her baby’s death. Alden wants this show to feel real, above all – he updates the setting to twentieth-century Eastern Europe to make it feel contemporary and relevant. But is this at odds with the over-composed nature of the show’s most dramatic moments? The language (deeply real, or deeply aesthetic) the show was trying to speak to me with felt somewhat emotionally muddled, with Alden trying to give a naturalistic bent to a show that tries to speak using highly artistic means.

But despite Alden’s slight muddling of its message, one must see this show for Janáček’s score. Go, and listen to it speak.


Rebecca J Hall