“A’m gonnae report yon Jenůfa tae the hate polis! Dumpin’ that poor wean in the river was age discrimination.”

In Leos Janáček’s 1904 opera, Jenůfa, the hostile villagers were eventually disabused of the notion that she had murdered her own illegitimate child. It was Jenůfa’s stepmother, the Kostelnička, who murdered the infant.

“Whit? It wis yon Kostelnička what done it? Even worse. Her bangin’ on aboot Števa’s boozin’ is Moravian hate, so it is. I kent she was a miserable besom from the start. And as for that Laca slashin’ wee Jenůfa’s cheek at the end of Act I. Sexual discrimination! He widnae dare slash big blondie guy, Števa. I’m fair scunnered. See us that online report form!”   

So might run opinion in the upper circle should Scottish Opera opt to re-stage Leoš Janáček’s most challenging opera, Jenůfa, anytime soon. General Director, Alex Reedjik, had better send for a handling heads up from gender-precise author, JK Rowling. 

The gutsy Rowling knows a thing or two about standing firm against the political nonsense that is the Hate Crime and Public Order Scotland Act 2021. The law, which encourages Stasi-like snitching, even from a Cottar’s humble homely hearth, came into force – without any sense of irony – on 1 April this year. 

Scotland, the land of 18th-century free speech Enlightenment, devolved into police state lunacy on April Fool’s Day.

Meantime, at London’s Coliseum, uninhibited, David Alden delivered Janáček’s full-on psychodrama in an English National Opera (ENO) production dating back to 2006. The Alden piece has lost none of its vim, vigour, violence, or vitriol over the years. 

The sensitive translation of the original libretto (Janáček) by Otakar Kraus, a Czech baritone and teacher and Sir Edward Downes, the conductor who introduced Jenůfa to London’s Royal Opera House in 1956, is essential for the production’s success. It is the opera’s spinal cord, supporting the intense exchanges among the characters. Often translations are clunky. This one flows with Janáček’s score. Singers never seemed to encounter awkward phrasing, or misplaced vowels and consonants.

Downes was involved in his own psychodrama in 2009, when he and his wife, Joan – suffering from terminal cancer – decided to die together at Dignitas, Switzerland. Back then their children Caractacus and Boudicca were questioned on their return to England by police, who took no action in connection with their abetting a criminal offence. At the time a police source said: “This is something we have to do as a matter of routine.” It was a kinder, more discreet age. 

The action centres on a mill owned by the Buryja family. For readers unfamiliar with the plot, a full synopsis can be found here. Jenůfa is in love with Števa, the Buryja family member who has inherited the mill, a drunk and spendthrift. His half-brother Laca is in love with Jenůfa. If ever there was a “dis” waiting to be connected with “gruntled”, Laca is he.

Grandmother Buryja, portrayed as a ditzy old lady out of her depth – oh, no, here come the thought police – has a daughter-in-law, the Kostelnička, who is Jenůfa’s stepmother. The opera was originally entitled, The Stepmother. This is early 20th-century family drama on steroids.

Susan Bullock, the accomplished British soprano, took on the critical role of the Kostelnička, which she dispatched with convincing skill and vigour. While initially offering a voice of tempering common sense to Jenůfa about the hazards of marrying Števa, she transforms slowly, with intransigent logic, into the child killer. Every evil deed is rationalised as being in Jenůfa’s best interest. “I did it for you”.

Bullock’s performance was spine-tingling, even occasionally brutal. Yet she left room for an ounce of sympathy for the stepmother determined to protect Jenůfa’s reputation, even if the price was murder. 

Jenůfa was Jennifer Davis, an Irish soprano, who has sung many roles at Covent Garden and across Europe. She has won “praise for her gleaming, silvery tone, and dramatic characterisation of remarkable immediacy”. I can’t improve on that assessment – from her own website

She managed the conflict between her tragedy and loyalty to the Kostelnička convincingly. Even more so as a gradual realisation that she could find long-term happiness by marrying Laca, the agent of her disfigurement, took root.

The unstable volcano, Laca, was sung by Richard Trey Smagur who erupted satisfactorily as and when the plot demanded. Smagur, an American and a winner of the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions in 2017, seethed with resentment from the start as he tended his knife-sharpening lathe at the mill and inserted poisoned worms into Jenůfa’s rosemary bush. Maybe if it died, so would her love for Števa. Not the brightest bulb in the Vánoce light set, Laca.

Smagur is blessed with a full-toned tenor instrument and was never afraid to let fly, which the score demanded of him frequently. Especially at the emotional climax of Act I when he slashes Jenůfa’s face. 

John Findon, a British tenor and ENO Harewood artist, was a suitably unlikeable Števa. Like Smagur he has a powerful voice which added conviction to the running conflict between the half-brothers. 

Keri-Lynn Wilson, the Canadian conductor, was in the pit and led the full orchestra onto the stage for a curtain call for this end-of-season performance. The orchestra has gone through torrid times following ENO’s gruelling experience of funding cuts and deserved the audience’s acclaim for a fine rendering.

I happened to have a third-row seat and was fascinated by Wilson’s heads-up conducting, maintaining moment-to-moment eye contact with ‘her’ singers. 

Janáček’s music feels rooted in the lives of countryside people going about their day-to-day business, facing all the angsts that other contemporary composers reserve for swooning poets. Massenet’s Werther springs to mind. 

And so it should, because Janáček made it his business to trek the Moravian countryside seeking out folk melodies handed down for generations.

Far away in England Ralph Vaughan Williams was following the same course, scouring rural England, seeking inspiration which resulted in his Folk Song Suite and English hymnal. The concept of the “Gypsy Muse” took root in Europe and as industrialisation threatened to sweep the musical cupboard clean of handed-down folk tradition the torch was kept alight by the likes of Vaughan Williams, Janáček, Malcolm Arnold and Ozef Kalda.

The result is opera, like Jenůfa, that elevates the established verismo tradition to a lower level. A conscious contradiction in terms. Suddenly, there are people on stage you know, can touch, feel and almost smell. 

Alden, set designer Charles Edwards and costume designer Jon Morrell use a bleak, down-at-heel-setting and unflashy clothes to underpin a simple message. Even in the forgotten corners of rural eastern Europe folk lead lives laden with stories that need retelling.

Banging on again about the importance of securing the long-term future of ENO, Jenůfa is the sort of opera that can be made more accessible to a wider public when sung in English. I doubt it is the most successful “bums on seats” operation on ENO’s calendar, but maybe sharper marketing could do something about that. 

The forgiveness at the end of the opera, when the Kostelnička acknowledges her crime, is prepared to face the consequences and Jenůfa resolves to make the best of a life refreshed, with the faithful but flawed Laca, is a message of hope that eventually went unheard in early 20th-century Europe. In one word – reconciliation. Boy, do we need to hear it through the fog of war today. 

And Another Thing!

Died and gone to heaven? Actually, I had headed to Braga, 50km north of Porto. Far from the sand-scratchy beaches and piri-piri Nando frango of the British Algarve. 

I was on the hunt for the rare Cupertinos, a flock of acapella singers specialising in the repertory of even lesser-known Portuguese composers. 

Portuguese musical heritage of the 16th and 17th centuries is based on a set of composers, such as Duarte Lobo (c.1565-1646), Manuel Cardoso (1566-1650), Filipe de Magalhães (c.1571-1652), and Pedro de Cristo (c.1550-1618). 

They were well known in their day. Less so now. “Less” is a polite euphemism. No “you might like” algorithm will suggest them as alternative choices on Spotify. Seek them out!

The venue was the twin-towered baroque Basilica of Congregados, in Braga’s main square. The concert was late, 9:30pm, and lasted only an hour. It was to be recorded live. 

When I pitched up at rehearsal time, I was able to lurk behind a pillar to observe. No one seemed to mind. Drama queens everywhere, and an overload of recording equipment. 

I got the impression the audience had been encouraged to turn up only to create a background atmosphere for the recording. There were a sparse sixteen of us. We were outnumbered by the singers and the techies. 

The spare music of worship filling the sacred space, purple swathed for Holy Week, was transcendental.  On leaving, a full moon was bathing the twin towers of Congregados. The knife-like tones of Cupertinos reverberated in my head on the car drive all the way to Porto. 

Portugal offers many unspoilt corners. I am hoping to hear the bells of Mafra in the summer. Meantime, this was the best €10 treat I have had so far this year. 

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