Theatre Royal, Glasgow
Star rating: ****
Annilese Miskimmon’s new production of Janacek’s Jenufa for Scottish Opera relocates the 1904 opera from a Czech village to the West of Ireland in 1918. If I hadn’t read that in the programme I’d never have known. Sure, the robust, square-set cottage looks like a mini version of Father Ted’s, but beyond that, and the odd bit of suggestive costume or prop, the specificity of the relocation, other than being more up to date, is pointless.
Thankfully, it’s also harmless. For this is an opera that could be set virtually anywhere, so long as the claustrophobic village atmosphere - with all its rumour-mongering, nosiness and judgemental ways - is maintained to contain a tale that is essentially human, universal, tragic, but with some lightness at the end of a dark tunnel.
A young girl, Jenufa, falls in love with her dashing, irresponsible cousin, Steva. His jealous half-brother, Laca, in a fit of manic frustration, disfigures her face. Steva gets his wicked way and does a runner, leaving Jenufa pregnant. She and her stepmother, the Kostelnicka, conceal the birth, but to avoid inevitable family shame the Kostelnicka drowns the baby while Jenufa sleeps. The crime is discovered, the Kostelnicka accepts her punishment. Steva loses face. Jenufa marries Laca.
It’s the anonymity of Miskimmon’s fluid staging and Nicky Shaw’s detailed storybook set designs - a cottage that opens up like a doll’s house for the interior drama of Acts Two and Three - that is this show’s strong selling point. It’s pity there’s not a symbolic mill wheel to accompany Janacek’s importantly recurring musical reference, but as a backdrop for simple storytelling, little gets in the way.
This particular cast centres around two very strong performances: Scots soprano Lee Bisset, whose expansive and expressive singing brings sympathetic warmth and glowing passion to the title role; and Peter Wedd, whose spirited portrayal of Laca is vocally and emotionally penetrating.
Kathryn Harries invests her own ingrained maturity in the Kostelnicka, supremely acted - you really feel for her as a victim of conscience, even if the strength she once had in the upper vocal range is noticeably weaker. Sam Furness as Steva isn’t exactly the irresistible stud he’s meant to be, though he’s a highly effective musical foil to Laca. The rest of the solo cast - including the busily animated chorus - fit neatly into the fast-moving mix.
And what a score. Stuart Stratford - now emerging as a front-runner for the music director job at Scottish Opera - captures the pungent codifications of Janacek’s gripping orchestral writing, despite some untidiness in its execution. But this is a production Scottish Opera can be proud of, even if the tepid parting shot from the leading couple is to pour a cup of tea. Mrs Doyle would approve.
• Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 9 and 11 April; Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, 16 and 18 April
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