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Jenufa

English National Opera, London Coliseum

AMANDA Roocroft's leap of delight during the curtain call at the end of this performance summed up not only what the cast felt, but also the audience. The ENO's new production of Janacek's most popular opera, Jenufa, was a tremendous success.

Directed by David Alden and produced in co-operation with Houston Grand Opera and Washington National Opera, this story of morals in rural peasant life in late 19th century Moravia is transposed to the modern day. Jon Morrell's costumes contrast Jenufa's rather dull blue dress with the brighter colours of her contemporaries.

Russian conductor Mikhail Agrest, making his ENO debut, goes for broke in the pit and, like his Mariinsky teammate, Valery Gergiev, is far more convincing in the ensemble pieces than the more tender moments, and excels in the folkie parts of the score.

Roocroft in the title role is in love with the former mill owner's grandson Steva (Paul Charles Clarke), but is loved by his half-brother, Laca (Stuart Skelton). Jenufa's life, though, is dominated by her stepmother, the Kostelnicka (Catherine Malfitano). Although she cannot change Jenufa's intentions, particularly when it emerges she is pregnant, she orders that the fun loving, draft-avoiding Steva must not drink for a year if he wants to marry Jenufa. Laca, angry at her continued love for the leather-jacketed, motorcycle-riding Steva, cuts her on the cheek with a knife.

Five months on and the Kostelnicka, feeling shame and wanting to protect her stepdaughter's honour, has kept Jenufa in seclusion until the birth of the baby, but Steva decides he wants nothing to do with her anymore. Laca, though, is still in love with Jenufa and agrees to marry her when the Kostelnicka tells him that the baby is dead. She then drowns it in the nearby river, while telling Jenufa, who she had drugged into a long sleep, that it had died of fever.

The baby's body is found as Jenufa prepares for her wedding to Laca. The Kostelnicka admits her guilt when the villagers point the finger at her stepdaughter and begs forgiveness.

Based on Gabriela Preissova's play, Her Stepdaughter, Janacek made numerous revisions to both the libretto and the score that took almost a decade to complete, and it was messed around further once it reached Prague, and not necessarily by the composer. This, though, is the original 1908 Brno version.

Roocroft's clear voice and bubbling enthusiasm, although that is kept in check for much of the time, certainly puts her alongside that other great modern-day Jenufa, Karita Mattila.

US soprano Malfitano's Kostelnicka dominates many of her set-pieces, as she should because the original play had her as the focal point of the story, although it is a wonderful score draw when she duets with Roocroft, with maybe the British star winning the penalty shoot-out - hence the leap of joy at the end.

Review by Peter Wilson


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