Climbing the walls: ‘Jenůfa’, Royal Opera House

Perhaps it’s appropriate that the first opera I’ve seen at Covent Garden since lockdown is this unflinching depiction of confinement and familial dysfunction, Claus Guth’s new staging of Janáček’s masterpiece, ‘Jenůfa’.

(Please beware spoilers in this piece – I’ll be roaming around the entirety of the plot, the better to discuss the production.)

The drama takes place in a Czech village, focusing on the fractured dynasty of mill-owner Grandmother Buryjovka. Charting the various blood ties here requires not so much a family tree as some kind of industrial blueprint, but here goes. (Grateful thanks to reader Graeme Wright, who corrected my initial misunderstanding.)

  • The Grandmother had two sons, both now dead.
  • The first son married a woman (also deceased) who already had a child, Laca. Their marriage produced Števa.
  • The second son married twice. His first marriage produced Jenůfa (making her cousin to the half-brothers). Following the death of her mother, he married the woman we know as the Kostelnička (the churchwarden). So, she is Jenůfa’s stepmother and, essentially, all that remains of that generation of the family.

It’s worth mapping these relationships out as they help explain the intense, claustrophobic passions the characters suffer. Jenůfa loves Števa, and is having his child. In the midst of a stiflingly religious community, she must try to marry Števa quickly, before the baby begins to show.

Števa might represent security, but is in fact a philandering boozer. Ignorant of the pregnancy, and warned off Jenůfa by the Kostelnička until he can sober up, he dodges any show of commitment.

Meanwhile, Laca – forever languishing in ‘runt of the litter’/’not one of us’ status – nurses an apparently genuine, but seemingly unrequited, love for Jenůfa. When Jenůfa consistently defends Števa, it is Laca who suddenly snaps. Laca of all people, our would-be hero, our underdog. In a rage, he slashes Jenůfa’s cheek with his knife.

The second act jumps on a few months. Jenůfa has given birth in secret, hidden away by the Kostelnička. Trying to resolve the situation, the Kostelnička attempts to persuade Števa to marry Jenůfa. But after losing interest in her immediately following the attack, Števa has got engaged to the mayor’s daughter, Karolka, instead. He offers money, but demands that he never be identified as the father.

Laca, on the other hand, is still keen to marry Jenůfa, but when the Kostelnička tells him the full story, he recoils at the idea of taking on Števa’s baby. Clutching at straws, she tells him the baby is dead.

Convincing herself that there is no other way out of the corner she has backed herself into, the Kostelnička drugs Jenůfa to keep her asleep, then slips out into the night with the baby. When Jenůfa eventually awakes, the Kostelnička tells her the baby died while she was sleeping. Laca comes back to the house and proposes to the grieving Jenůfa, who accepts him.

Act three opens on the day of the wedding. There are tensions below the surface calm, as Laca and Jenůfa awkwardly socialise with Števa and Karolka, while the Kostelnička is distracted, even distressed. Suddenly, the occasion is ruined with the discovery of an infant body under the river-ice, and Jenůfa – instantly realising what must have happened – admits the baby is hers in an outburst of grief. The villagers are ready to stone her on the spot for murder, but the Kostelnička immediately confesses and is taken away. Jenůfa tries to dismiss Laca, but to her surprise, he still wants to marry her, and the couple leave to face the future together.

Asmik Gregorian as Jenůfa. Press production photo: Tristram Kenton.

*

The first time I saw ‘Jenůfa’ was around five years ago, in the blisteringly powerful English National Opera production. While that version featured some evocative symbolism, overall the story was sold in brutally realistic fashion, high-octane yet kitchen-sink – ruthlessly effective. So I came to the Royal Opera House with some idea of what to expect from the plot, but wondering how much of a contrast there would be between the interpretations.

At the ROH, I think we witnessed something more haunting and elusive – occasionally frustrating but always intriguing and provocative. As the curtain rose, everything we saw on stage suggested restriction, limitations. The staging seemed drained of colour, instead a monochrome mix of white, large (and firmly closed) blinds covering the walls, and every worker pushed right to the edge, as if rigidly confined even though space was available. In contrast to the set, all the women wore black dresses and hooded bonnets, suggesting – surely no accident? – a funereal image reminiscent of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, itself a fable of female confinement, in all senses of the word.

The stark use of black and white lent the production an air of spectral weirdness. These women – constrained by their lot in life, their jobs, their situation, their religion – embody the need for release: one unforgettable scene has them literally climbing the walls, a single central figure becoming almost spider-like as she, alone, drags herself a few feet off the ground before, inevitably, they slide back down. But this is turned agonisingly on its head in Act 3 when, falling back into hive-mind submission, they round as one on Jenůfa, flocking together as if one malevolent, nebulous being. One figure in the background is revealed to be an enormous raven-creature, shadowing the Kostelnička as she circles round her options to reach her fatal decision.

Any hint of colour – whether flowers or a pattern overlaid on a dress – seems to represent some potential escape, some near-attainment of joy. So it is fascinating that Jenůfa chooses to dress in plain black for her wedding day – even if in grief, it is not for show, as at that time, the villagers do not know she has had a child. Perhaps it is her message to us that marriage to Laca, arguably her only realistic option, is really another form of imprisonment…?

In Act 2, Guth actually places Jenůfa in a cage, as a two-room metal bar structure (with sliding parts to suggest doors and windows) represents her home with the Kostelnička. Or so it first appears. On the one hand, it might feel obvious, clunky even: ‘It’s as if Jenůfa is in some kind of TRAP!’ But on the other, the structure resists an easy, pat interpretation. Jenůfa seems able to move in and out of it relatively freely, even though she herself refers at one point to a locked door, and passes ‘through’ what appears to be a window. At the striking close of Act 2, she breaks free of the house altogether and heads to the water, foreshadowing the discovery in Act 3. I started to wonder if the cage was less a mental prison for Jenůfa than for her stepmother, ensnared first by the family’s situation and then by her horrendous crime, in constant terror of Jenůfa getting away and discovering the truth.

Curtain call. Photo: AA.

The staging is in some ways a visual reflection of Janáček’s extraordinary music, which somehow blends the earthy, folk-infused ‘realistic’ stylings with elevated, ravishing moments of horror and euphoria. The ROH Orchestra, conducted by Henrik Nánási, made us feel every extreme.

The cast grounded the evening with performances of acute emotional intelligence. Asmik Gregorian may sing the title role with an angelic, clarion brightness but she does not make Jenůfa impossibly saintly or serene – her body language is by turns passionate, impulsive, then cautious and wary, someone whose scope for happiness has been eroded by abuse. Nicky Spence’s portrayal of Laca was bold and complex, clearly a man in absolute horror of what he had done, but still capable of aggression and suspended between feelings of adoration and awe for his cousin. Whatever is wrong with this family, somehow it’s in Laca too, and Spence – even as a naturally sympathetic stage presence – never loses sight of how terrifying that must be.

Gregorian and Spence did not play out conventional love scenes, or experience a moment’s epiphany and collapse into each other’s arms: their ‘happy couple’ remained slightly awkward around each other, knowing full well that their joint venture into the future is tentative, frightening.

Saimir Pirgu reveals the weakness behind Števa’s bluster, and Jacquelyn Stucker is an impressive foil to both Pirgu and Gregorian as the excitable Karolka, almost ricocheting like a pinball between the former’s embarrassed angst and the latter’s resigned stillness.

But star billing of the show – and rightly so – belongs to Karita Mattila, once a celebrated Jenůfa herself, but surely giving here one of the definitive interpretations of the Kostelnička. Without a single lapse into ogre-level domination or ‘wicked stepmother’ cliché, she controls those around her through sheer force of will and expression. But in our moments alone with her, she reveals her torment and confusion as her divine thoughts are perverted into one disastrous, evil act.

No-one who sees this performance – or production – is likely to forget it.

AA

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