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October 30, 2006

Twilight of an Opera House? Leoš Janáček's Jenůfa at the Coliseum

Posted by David Conway

Leoš Janáček's Jenůfa
English National Opera, London Coliseum
Orchestra and Chorus of the English National Opera
conducted by Mikhail Agrest
directed by David Alden
9th - 28th October 2006

David Conway has real concerns about the way the ENO is going.

One of the greatest theatrical experiences I have ever had was at a production of Janáček's Cunning Little Vixen, maybe 15 years ago, in the unattractive industrial town of Ostrava. No big names of course; the theatre was a shoe-box-like concrete affair, the singers and musicians all unknowns. Those of us from my party of visiting businessmen who went along did so because the only alternative was being entertained by the flock of houris who had crowded to the Atom Hotel on hearing that Westerners were in town. Attractive as some of these ladies were, we opera-goers undoubtedly had a better (and much cheaper) time.

The orchestra may have been stripped down to twenty or so, and those on stage were nearly all from the local conservatoire and schools; but their commitment was total and their ability to convey Janáček's Moravian idiom was understandably unsurpassable. We left in a wonderful state of emotional uplift, and as we wandered back along the icy streets we were able to congratulate the Vixen (who could not have been more than 18 or 20 years old) as she took the bus home.

Intimate, idiomatic, cohesive, confident - this production of Vixen had all the key qualities that the ENO's Jenůfa fatally lacks. The skilled singers it offers are all but utterly defeated by the absurd context in which they are set. Jenůfa's themes of passion and redemption are timeless, but its setting is not; it is rooted in the remote rural society of 19th-century on the borders of Moravia and Slovakia, where child-birth out of marriage means exclusion, where a churchwarden (the literal meaning of the name "Kostelnička" by which everyone calls Jenůfa's step-mother) is a source of moral authority, and where cut-off villages and communities live in a state of stifling intimacy. None of these factors applied in industrial towns of Slovakia in the 1960s, where the Church was ignored and where abortion was as common and unremarkable as rain.

Yet that is where the director David Alden and designer Charles Edwards have chosen to set the opera. I note that this is a co-production with Houston Grand Opera and Washington National Opera and I appreciate that to such partners the trivia of time and place in Europe may appear irrelevancies; but such a setting remains unarguably a travesty and betrayal of what the composer (and the remarkable playwright Gabriela Preissová, on whose work he based the opera) wished to convey to us.

This jarring disjunction is exacerbated by the staging itself. The Coliseum stage is large, and is used here at its most cavernous, even for the supposedly intimate settings of the Kostelnička's modest dwelling in Acts II and III. So the opera, which is essentially dialogue except for the two great act II monologues of Jenůfa and the Kostelnička, is distorted by characters exchanging comments from opposite corners of the stage, or having to make immense crossings from time to time. Amongst innumerable other annoyances are the way in which machinery lights are made to flicker in time with the percussion bursts (which are meant to serve quite another musical and emotional function) in Act I, and the lighting as a whole during this act, which produces an annoying glare off the stage to anyone not in the stalls; on a more esoteric note my wife, who is Slovak, was infuriated by the use of Russian folk dancing in the marriage scene in the last act.

With all of this so very wrong, it is not surprising that singers and orchestra alike were at best tentative, and at worst scrappy, before the first interval. Janáček's technique of carefully stitching together musical motifs needs assured handling - a combination of an almost chamber-music approach with a firm control of the underlying forward movement of the score and an unforced confidence in the idiom - these were all lacking both on stage and in the pit.

The gap between acts I and II in Jenůfa represent for Janáček something like the gap after the Forest Murmurs in Siegfried represented for Wagner. True, Janáček did not, like Wagner, compose two whole operatic masterpieces before resuming, but his style was powerfully influenced and changed by his encounter with Italian verismo opera, which hit Moravia around 1900, about 10 years after it had won over the major European opera houses. The emotional intensity of the remaining two acts of Jenůfa is incomparably greater than that of the first; and as we now had hardly any reminders of the anachronisms of Act I, the singers and orchestra were able significantly to rise to the challenge.

In the title role, Amanda Roocroft undoubtedly has the voice for the part, but seemed to me to lack somewhat the necessary presence - her agony and her compassion are well-signified, but do not quite live sufficiently to wrench the audience's emotions. With Catherine Malfitano as the Kostelnička, the problem was almost opposite; she threw herself into the part at the expense of accurate singing, but that is not a heinous offence in this melodramatic role. Overall the finest performance was by Stuart Skelton as the misfit Laca whose love against all expectations gives the heroine a chance of happiness, one which Roocroft at last radiantly communicated. But overall, what a lost opportunity for this marvellous opera!

I do now feel a genuine concern for the ENO - and that is quite apart from the serious personnel problems which it seems to continue to experience at the highest levels of its management, and on which I am not qualified to comment. Time was - but how distant now! - when I would eagerly go to every new production. Answering a questionnaire they sent me recently I realised for the first time how rarely I am motivated these days to pay a visit.

Just look at what we have for the 2006/2007 season and speculate on what - if any - audience it is intended to attract. The utter disaster of Gadaffi, which the ENO board presumably backed whilst acting in Ali G mode to appear "real wicked"; 20 performances scheduled of Bernstein's On the Town - I can hardly wait to cringe at cast's Brooklyn accents; 19 performances of the musical Kismet - when the commercial West End is already overloaded with revivals of musicals, and there hasn't been a new British production of Prince Igor (from whose music Kismet is stolen) in living memory; 13 performances of the dull new production of Traviata; 10 performances of a nondescript (and therefore unnecessary) La Bohčme; 8 of a new production of Britten's most boring opera Death in Venice, and 5 of a new production of Mozart's yawnfest La Clemenza di Tito.

On the plus side a new production of The Gondoliers (20 performances) and Handel's Agrippina (9 performances) – and two possible goodies, new productions of Marriage of Figaro (18 performances, premiere on 2nd November) and of Philip Glass's Satyagraha (5 performances next spring).

Once upon a time I would have had no hesitation booking in advance for the last two - now I will wait for the reviews first; really, the good old ENO just can't be trusted any more. And if not by me, then also not by many others of its former core supporters. It seems to have an artistic leadership with a Duncan Smith-like removal from the realities which will ignite the passion of its potential punters. It may yet be that the words of Wagner, originally intended in a rather different context, will apply to the ENO:

Only one thing can redeem you from the burden of your curse: the redemption of Ahasuerus - Going under!
David Conway's previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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