Janacek Jenufa, English National Opera, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

Hellish reality of girl's dream
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The Independent Culture

It was just like the old days. David Alden, the scourge of many a controversial opening at English National Opera during the so-called "powerhouse" era, was back - via Houston, it's true, but back. And didn't we know it. Alden may have mellowed in the years since his last new production here, but the old edge is still there.

As Janacek's chattering xylophone began its nervous evocation of the water-mill wheel relentlessly turning, the curtain rose - not on some picturesque rural Czech backwater but the scrag end of an industrial estate: the grey brick and corrugated metal of a decrepit sawmill.

The figure with her back to us so that we may not see the disappointment on her face is Jenufa. Her dreams torment her. Her reality? All this could be yours, says Alden. And it is one of the many strengths of this staging that he accentuates the seemingly unbridgeable gulf between what Jenufa wants and what she has. In the opening scene she carries a potted sapling. But where could she plant it? Nothing grows here. And that includes her.

The family she hopes against hope to marry into are caricatures clinging to a more prosperous past; the man of her dreams, Steva, is a drunk and a womaniser. When he roars into the opening scene on his reconditioned Harley the delusion hits home. Love is indeed blind. The stage explodes with local colour - and it isn't pretty. Another day, another piss-up. This isn't Jenufa's dream, this is her worst nightmare.

Well, almost. That comes in Janacek's searing second act when Alden locks us away with Jenufa, her stepmother Kostelnicka, and the newborn but unseen child. Charles Edwards' dank, empty, loveless set with its boarded up windows and exaggerated perspective is a place of shame, of unforgiving light and shadow. Very Fritz Lang, very Alden.

When the squat widow Kostelnicka (Catherine Malfitano) resolves to sacrifice the baby rather than suffer the ignominy of local scorn, the light picks out only her and a cheap plaster cast of the Virgin Mother and Child which is her shrine. The God she so fears is watching. It is that fear that Malfitano - her big, intimidating voice in great shape - conveys so well. There is a good woman in there somewhere. Fear, loathing and years of abuse have forced her into hiding.

And then there is Jenufa - and I have never seen Amanda Roocroft better. From her precocious beginnings, and more or less instant stardom, few singers in my experience have grown as she has. The voice has certainly grown, and on this showing it's found a new focus, true and blade-like. But most of all the artistry has grown. As Jenufa, her whole body shakes with conviction, at once vulnerable and resilient. And when the terrible news of her child's death is broken to her she appears poleaxed by something she already knows, something only a mother can know.

The way she fills the huge silence here speaks volumes of her emptiness. This isn't just a great operatic performance, it's a great performance - period. Take the music away and you'd still be moved. While we're singing praises, I should single out Stuart Skelton's passionate, no-holds-barred, Laca - the "understudy" for Jenufa's affections. He has quite a voice - big, open, heroic. Will it give us a red-headed Siegfried one day? And Susan Gorton's indomitable grandma, looking for all the world like she'd just stepped out of an Andy Capp cartoon strip.

Mikhail Agrest conducted Janacek's wonderful score with a great sense of its fractured wholeheartedness, seizing its fleeting ecstasies like they might vanish before he could.

You really felt that the hopeful peroration had been earned, that Jenufa and Laca's final embrace was not just for now but forever.

To 28 October