The orchestra under the direction of Henrik Nanasi plays a blindfold


A scene from the production of Jenufa (Ivor Kerslake) at the Royal Opera House

The Royal Opera production of Claus Guth by Janacek Jenufa was scheduled to open in March 2020, but was aborted at the last moment by Covid. Better late than never. It has now opened and it is a wonderful evening.

However, this visual spectacle is not immediately apparent. In what looks like an industrial workshop with white walls, rows of identically dressed female automatons peel potatoes as the dysfunctional family the story is about bicker at the center of the stage. We are asked to accept this barren piece of Teutonic stylization as having taken place in a remote Moravian village 100 years ago. There is no sense of time or place; the characters on stage could be in a mad scientist’s laboratory. But Guth has a plan, which he only gradually reveals.

The plot is about Steva, a dissolute young mill owner whom all girls adore, and his fiancee Jenufa, whom his half-brother Laca also loves. Jenufa’s adoptive mother, known as Kostelnicka (a female sacristan), wants to protect her from the effects of Steva’s drunkenness. But Jenufa is expecting Steva’s child and is desperate to avoid scandal in this very conventional community by marrying her. His refusal to do so triggers a tragedy. Her mother forces her to give birth in secret; to protect her daughter’s reputation, she gives her a sleeping pill and murders the child. But she is not smart enough to properly hide the body, which resurfaces next spring when the winter ice melts …

Yes, this is the quintessential Janacek territory, full of desperate desires and pent-up emotions, with a violence still hidden beneath the surface, and with the orchestra magnifying those emotions to create a wild and sinister landscape. Guth keeps the stage bare – and in twilight lighting – from start to finish. Yet the few visual surprises it allows are so breathtaking, and the performances of the principals so convincing, that we are irresistibly blown away.

Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu’s soft, swaggering Steva fits the bill perfectly, but tenor Nicky Spence’s Laca outshines him as the score demands it, with a pitiful desperation that screams to the heavens. In the great Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, who 20 years ago memorable portrayed Jenufa, we get a massively convincing Kostelnicka; it has wonderful warmth and power, serving as the perfect foil to Asmik Grigorian’s sound in the title role. This Lithuanian soprano holds the whole dramatic edifice with remarkable purity and regularity of tone, and an emotional restraint that makes the pathos of her lot all the more absorbing. Guth’s staging of the affirmation of hope in Janacek’s conclusion is a beautifully heartwarming twist.

There are aspects of this show that stick in mind for a long time afterwards, including the dream sequence in which a bloody child walks across the stage; the giant crow that perches ominously above Jenufa prison; and the burst of color that suddenly permeates the scene of Jenufa’s unhappy marriage. The choir vividly evokes a village community; the orchestra conducted by Henrik Nanasi plays a blinker. Go see him.

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