OPERA / Hints of summer: Edward Seckerson on Janacek's Jenufa at Covent Garden

Autumn and winter - the seasons of decay - predominate in Jenufa. Spring arrives under duress, summer never comes at all. But we feel its proximity in the bountiful final pages of the score.

It shouldn't work, this hackneyed 'seasons' analogy, but Janacek's characters, like his music, are so completely elemental that to understand them we need to understand, to feel a part of the natural processes that govern them. The two are inseparable. So hope really does spring eternal in the closing pages of the opera, the sun does shine on this story of country folk. And that's hugely significant, because the key element here is a stifling provincialism. You long for someone to throw open the doors and windows and let the light and air in.

Which is precisely where Yuri Lyubimov's 1986 production proves so durable. On a wide-open stage, black-shrouded, bare-boarded, he manages to maintain an unrelenting claustrophobia. Revolving flats, black one side, white the other, torment us, jets of steam shoot from the floor like the release from some subterranean pressure-cooker, the lighting is harshly vertical and horizontal, movement tightly choreographed. During the prelude, the central core of the drama is revealed in microcosm: Jenufa is seen shadowed by her overbearing stepmother; the two men in her life are kept well at bay. In another extraordinary scene, Jenufa attempts to extricate the drunken Steva from a group of equally inebriated friends, and their stylised, almost comic swaying turns lachrymose as she too is caught up in the mass of bodies like reeds blowing in the wind. Lyubimov's expressionist shocks wear well, too: Laca hurling himself at the wall of the house after cutting Jenufa, the wall giving way to support his prone 'crucified' body; or the strange poetic justice of Kostelnicka's headlong rush upstage towards an altar of blinding white light where the silhouette of the cross bears witness to her murder of Jenufa's child.

None of which would carry much weight if the characters were not fleshily drawn. They are. This revival is strikingly well cast. Nancy Gustafson adds another tormented Slav heroine to her impressive gallery, and as ever she gives it her heart and soul. Physically, she knows the value of stillness and focus on stage, vocally the full and intense top of her range gives free rein to Jenufa's honesty and compassion. She is well-matched with Anja Silja's seasoned Kostelnicka, whose towering austerity is further proof of her pre-eminence among operatic stage animals. The ugly beat in the voice is as nothing to the purposefulness and force of the delivery: from her wounded cry 'the child gnaws at my soul' she is a woman trapped, victim of her own bigotry. And unlike some one-dimensional readings of the role, we see and feel her desperate, ignominious decline, and we pity her. Her final remorse is for once believable. As is Jan Blinkhof's transformation from bitter, uncouth, hulk (brave, raw- edged, Heldentenorial) to the real Laca - a caring, decent man for too long denied a purpose in life.

Janacek's serrated orchestral textures - all restless, nagging ostinati and lyric fragmentations, no sooner seized than gone - were suitably obssessive under Jiri Kout's taut direction. The rustic colours project well in the dry Royal Opera House acoustic, and yes, there was light - a blazing benediction - in that radiant coda.

Box office: 071-240 1066.

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