Jenufa, Royal Opera House, London

Janacek's finest moment
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The Independent Culture

A collector's item, no doubt about that. You could have played out this entire performance in rehearsal clothes and on an empty stage and still conveyed its vivid sense of time and place, of a simple, insular people grappling with their needs, their desires, their pride while caught in the vortex that is tradition, God, and nature.

A collector's item, no doubt about that. You could have played out this entire performance in rehearsal clothes and on an empty stage and still conveyed its vivid sense of time and place, of a simple, insular people grappling with their needs, their desires, their pride while caught in the vortex that is tradition, God, and nature.

Yes, an empty stage would have been good. Actually, Olivier Tambosi's production, first seen in Hamburg three years ago, is inclined towards a spacious minimalism. At first glance, Frank Philipp Schlossmann's design – scrubbed pine, blue sky, and corn – suggests both the openness of the wider world and the stifling environment in which this drama unfolds. Gaunt pine walls stand ready to close in on our protagonists, like the doors of some inner-world that is their only refuge from the elements.

But then comes the heavy-handed symbolism: the rock. In Act I it is bursting through the splintered wooden floor – an unwanted issue of nature that it doesn't take too much imagination to equate with Jenufa's pregnancy. By Act II it has arrived, an abomination, a disruption to the Buryjovka household. Jenufa dreams she is being crushed by it (at least, that's the textual justification). And as her world shatters, so too does the rock, ending in Act III as so many stones ready for casting by self-righteous villagers. Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place. But that's the silliness of the metaphor. It doesn't work. It isn't necessary.

Tambosi's strength is his clarity. He sets up beautifully the character of Jenufa's betrothed Steva, played here with great energy by a rather too old Jerry Hadley (the one questionable piece of casting). The scene of his arrival is key because it shows him for what he is: a boorish, selfish, opportunist drunk. That he makes such an exhibition of himself – and Tambosi really lays it on here – lends greater credibility to Jenufa's stepmother, the Kostelnicka, a role now owned body and soul by Anja Silja. The relationship between her and her stepdaughter, finding their love for each other in the perversity of their circumstance, is Tambosi's finest achievement here. The moment in Act II where the Kostelnicka for once defies her inner voices and locks Jenufa in a natural mother's embrace is simply overwhelming. A small moment with huge implications for the unfolding drama.

That drama is, of course, fully centred on Karita Mattila's radiant and thrilling Jenufa. Her big notes, her big phrases – and, my goodness, they are big – carry her heartache and hope in equal measure. And she is wonderful at identifying and holding those still, visionary moments, reserving her most glacial sound for them. Hers is the sound of hope as surely as Silja's is the sound of torment. And then there is the almost unbearable intensity of Jorma Silvasti's Laca, whose passion for Jenufa I have never heard conveyed more forcefully or meaningfully. At the close of Act II, the Kostelnicka has Laca, Jenufa, and herself lock hands in a desperate gesture of solidarity. A holy trinity born of fear and shame. But a family nonetheless.

All the small-part casting is equally strong. A lot of history rides on seeing Eva Randova, now moving into the next generation of matriarchs as Grandmother Buryjovka, share a stage with Silja. Forces of nature, both. And if we might have hoped for Bernard Haitink to be more of a force of nature in the pit, in terms, that is, of the score's untamed abrasiveness, the amazing beauty of what he and his orchestra achieved was undeniable. Great performances of Jenufa leave you feeling that Janacek wrote nothing finer. This was one.

Further performances Thurs, 10, 13, 16 & 19 Oct, 020-7304 4000

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