It starts with a xylophone; a dadadadadada dadadadadada motif that suggests an elevated pulse-rate, a state of anxiety, a constriction of the lungs, a catch in the throat; a theme as powerful in its suggestiveness as Hermann's shrieking strings in Psycho. It ends with a murder, a confession, and a reconciliation. Jenufa is, without a doubt, the most devastatingly compact, raw and physical opera – an opera that flexes and fights and grapples and gasps its history.
Sex and death are the bread and butter of opera, power struggles its meat and potatoes. But infanticide is an exotic delicacy – the result of politics (yes, I do mean Médée) or the supernatural. It's odd, when you think of it; a big gap in the operatic rosta of extreme human behaviour. The victims' faces stare at us from the newsprint; wounded children contorting their features into an approximation of camera-friendly optimism. Smile for mamma (you little bastard). As parents we grow ever more frightened of the pervert in the park, yet a child is still most likely to be killed in the bosom of its family. But you simply don't expect it at the opera. That the murder of Stevushka, Jenufa's illegitimate child by the feckless Steva, occurs in the (fictional) world of 19th century middle Europe makes no difference to the impact of Jenufa. If someone suggested an operatic treatment of Susan Smith or Andrea Yates I would have balked at the idea before seeing this production. Music is great at pin-pointing a single emotion and crystallising it as art. But moral convolution in a stifling domestic arena? Isn't this the province of film or literature? Apparently not.
The music of Jenufa prefigures so much of what we value now (the minimalist glint of woodwind at the top of a string arpeggio) and echoes much of the best that was known when Janacek wrote it (the naturalism of Ariadne's Lament). But if you think of the music of Bach or Beethoven or even Adams, you think of fire or earth or air or water. Janacek's music is bloody and fatty. It's the music of flesh. Jenufa works as a body, with much of its rhythm and motion unconscious. And if the sounds that Janacek created have this physical weight and propulsion, the drama matches them; for at the end of an opera that sees a heroine left with the woman who has murdered her child and the man who has cut her face as her closest allies, the Buryja family order is still maintained. All protagonists – baby Stevushka excepted – must keep functioning as interdependent organs of the same diseased body. There is no choice but to survive and the heart is revealed as a blind, muscular pump.
Glutted by memories of Moldavian ribbons and woodsy furniture from previous Janacek experiences, I was unprepared for the effect of this opera taken at full, driven speed with scant attention to anything but the most vital and inevitable drama. Thanks to conducting of astonishing energy and imagination from Bernard Haitink, three hours passed by in a concentrated flash of blood and tissue and bone. And, regrettable as one detail of Olivier Tambosi's production was, pulling Jenufa out of Bohemian kitsch and into a wheatfield that could be anywhere from North Dakota to just outside Brno made the opera at once more universal and more specific than I could have imagined.
Much of Tambosi's vision is wonderful: the light, the dizzying planes of pine, the claustrophobia, the menace. To ignore his most off-message device – the 10 foot millstone – would nevertheless be perverse. (In Act I it thrusts through the floor as a crude symbol of Jenufa's pregnancy. In Act II it rests like an alien spaceship to signify the birth of an infant that no-one except its mother wants. In Act III it is shattered into rubble as a representation of Stevushka's shattered body and an arsenal for collective outrage.) But the performances of Karita Mattila (Jenufa), Anja Silja (Kostelnicka), and Jorma Silvasti (Laca) are so compelling and complete that the boulder almost disappears. If Mattila and – more so – Silja occasionally lapse into Edvard Munch archetypes it is entirely forgivable; who thinks of dignity when you're having your heart ripped out? And their singing is utterly magnificent. Indeed with the exception of Jerry Hadley – whose arthritic Steva would be unlikely to be conscripted into anything apart from Dad's Army – this is the cast of a lifetime; a dynastic line-up of the best singers from whippersnappers (Gail Pearson and Jonathan Veira) to veterans (Eva Randov).
Could I say I enjoyed Jenufa? I left in a state of shock, wrung out by the awfulness of the story and the awefulness of Janacek's score. I left thinking about infanticide, about fractured families, forgiveness, predestination and thwarted, twisted love. I left thinking about my son, about the sons of my friends, about birth and loss. But Jenufa isn't a thought-provoking piece. It's a feeling-provoking piece; an intensely human work that turns you inside out and makes much of the rest of opera seem like over-written frippery. Only after a few days of recovery are you able to realise that, harrowing as it is to watch and listen to, Jenufa makes you believe in the power of this art-form.
'Jenufa', Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000) to October 19