Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

16-18 April


Scottish Opera continued their innovative 2015 season with a powerful staging of Leos Janacek’s Jenufa at the Festival Theatre: blessed with outstanding performances from Lee Bisset in the title role and Kathryn Harries as the Kostelnicka. Following last month’s visually and musically gorgeous Orfeo ed Euridice, this provided a complete contrast – Janacek’s menacing score complimenting a chilling tale of jealousy, infanticide and unlikely redemption.

There is however a connection between the two operas: Gluck’s piece is one staging post on the quest for dramatic realism in opera, Janacek’s is another, using what he called ‘melodic motifs of speech’ instead of traditional arias in an attempt to inject some truthful expression into this most unreal of art forms.

This co-production with Danish National Opera directed by Annilese Miskimmon and designed by Nicky Shaw relocated the action to the West of Ireland. Fair enough as far as it goes as the petty jealousies of rural life are surely much the same in villages from Okinawa to the banks of the Orinoco, but it was mercifully understated as any heavier-handed depiction might have made Janacek’s use of Moravian folk-rhythms somewhat incongruous.

Whether it actually works as drama depends largely on the audience’s ability to believe in Jenufa’s superhuman capacity for forgiveness. The story in brief: Jenufa loves her feckless cousin Steva and is pregnant by him, Steva’s half-brother Laca (another strong performance from Peter Wedd) loves Jenufa and, crazed with jealousy, slashes her cheeks, leading Steva to reject her and the baby. Jenufa’s stepmother the Kostelnicka then murders the baby in order that Jenufa will be free to marry Laca. One may wonder why she thinks Laca the slasher a suitable match, but Jenufa has not only forgiven him she then proceeds to forgive the Kostelnicka also when her murder is revealed. Perhaps it is exactly Jenufa’s extraordinary ability to forgive that drives those who love her to behave so brutally. Strange things, people.

What cannot be doubted though is the brilliance of Lee Bisset as Jenufa, who reaches a pitch of heartbreaking tenderness in her prayer for (as we know but she as yet doesn’t) already dead baby, and Kathryn Harries’ equally superb portrayal of the guilt-ridden Kostelnicka’s descent into madness. Kudos also to Scottish Opera’s (now part-time due to funding cuts) orchestra who, under the direction of Janacek specialist Stuart Stratford, played powerfully throughout from the chilling repetitive xylophone of Act I, to the suffocating tensions of Act II, right up to the spectacular finale.

And for those who prefer their operas grand, Italian and packed with melody, there’s Verdi’s Il Trovatore to end the season next month.

Reviewer : Tam Heinitz