THIS Katie Mitchell production dates back nearly a quarter of a century, first seen in the pre-Millennium Centre days when the New Theatre Cardiff was WNO’s home base. Now re-imagined by co-director Eloise Lally and staff director Sarah Crisp, it has lost none of its power to capture the hearts of an audience as the story of love, honour, betrayal, infanticide and redemption is played out with startling reality.
It must be difficult for the present generation to understand what the shame of baring a child outside of marriage meant, especially in a close knit turn of the twentieth century village community in central Europe. It is against this background that the story of the all too trusting Jenufa (Elizabeth Llewellyn) is told. She is made pregnant by an often inebriated young Mill owner Steva (Rhodri Prys Jones) and slashed in the face by a knife wielding young man, Laca (Peter Berger) so desperately in love with her that he is overwhelmed by jealousy. Using the disfigurement as an excuse Steva deserts Jenufa refusing to take any responsibility for the child, whilst Laca, full of remorse, offers her marriage.
The stumbling block to this marriage, in the eyes of Jenufa’s overprotective loving step-mother, Kostelnicka (Eliska Weissova) is the now newly born boy child. So great is Kostelnicka’s love for Jenufa, and determination to protect her from shame and humiliation that she, a very religious woman, risks loosing her immortal soul by killing the child and hiding his body.
Rather like revealing the denouement at the end of a thriller it would be wrong, for the sake of those who have never seen this Janacek opera, to tell how– through self-sacrifice and redemption on behalf of others – Jenufa’s future is secured. To create such powerful characters as these in a drama would be difficult, to do so in a narrative opera sung in Czech requires even greater skill.
Headed by Eliska Weissova, who paints a immensely strong portrait of the determined, conscience-ridden Kostelnicka, and Elizabeth Llewellyn’s confused and abused Jenufa, the story and characters emerge and change with great clarity. Compared with the women, Steva and Laca are much more straightforward and under Eloise Lally’s sensitive direction, Rhodri Prys Jones and Peter Berger never complicate the characters.
Musically with the score aimed at supporting the telling of a powerful drama rather than offering showy solo arias to the soloists, it offers a slightly different challenge to the singers than the ones they usually face,. Under the fully committed baton of Tomas Hanus, and terrific backing of the WNO orchestra, soloists and readily accepting their limited opportunities the WNO Chorus, skilfully, and successfully meet the challenge.
Before the opera began conductor Tomas Hamus took the unusual step of addressing the audience. Drawing parallel’s with he tragic situation in the Ukraine he pointed to the healing powers of music and its ability to draw people together, expressing the wish that in a troubled world the evenings performance would be “an island of beauty and humility”.