Review by Polly Hope
English National Opera. The London Coliseum. Autumn. 2006.
Jenufa; surely one of the world's greatest operas? As agonising as Wozzek and with better music. Somehow unbelievable that it's premiere was 102 years ago! It sounds so NOW, and very postmodern. I suppose in the scheme of things a century isn't much. A hundred years before Jenufa gets you to within a decade of Mozart, now that is mind-boggling.
This new production isn't bad. In fact not at all bad, it just isn't very good. As always in today's way of doing things the work is set in a late 1950's factory. It could be he 70's but what is the difference. It more or less works set on this period, though the huge emotional disgrace of an illegitimate child is no longer quite real when a third of all children, at least in Western Europe, are now born out of wedlock. So taking this time shift already means something is lost. Perhaps no one else questions this? But setting pretty much all operas nowadays in modern dress does raise many an awkward questions.
But back to ENO's Jenufa. Amanda Roocroft sings a lovely Jenufa and looks far too pretty and nice for a rough factory girl, she would definitely be better off in peasant gear. The horrifying part of the Kostelnicka is sung by Catherine Malfitano, she doesn't seem really to show much distress or emotion having murdered Jenufa's baby and sings along throughout the work on the same rather ordinary level. The men are okay, nobody actually ever sings badly any longer in a major opera house and Mikhail Grest conducting does marvellous work; the orchestral sound is the best part of the evening and the music harrows and tears at one's senses and I found myself wishing that the singers would shut up so I could listen to the orchestra more.
Going to opera is always a big treat, it is such a marvellously excessive medium, so I always have a good time. However Jenufa should shred the heartstrings and one should leave the theatre sobbing rather than wondering where the hell the car is parked, and wouldn't a glass of wine be good.
That's the problem with the English National Opera; it never ever hits the jackpot. Often it is barely passable. Why? London needs two big houses; we are m9oe than 10 million people and a lot of us like opera. Good designers are employed, he orchestra is fine, the repertoire is interesting, guest conductors do their best but the singers are never ever more than adequate. I am sure it isn't just a question of money. There is plenty of talent around so surely directors can do better with the people they work with? The audience liked Jenufa, well they clapped a lot, but no bravos. Or boos. Mostly the house is full, and it is vast. So why can't I ever leave in tears? Opera is a difficult medium to get right but surely not impossible.
If you've nothing else to do by all means go to this Jenufa. It is worth seeing and hopefully you aren't quite as picky as I am.
Polly Hope London Autumn 2006