OPERA / A season in hell: Edward Seckerson on Lucy Bailey's new staging of Janacek's Jenufa at English National Opera

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It looked like a giant cinema screen. Or maybe just a black frame housing a blank canvas. Was this an omen? Slowly it rose (or not, in the case of Act 2, which got off to a false start), precariously tilting to form a sheltering sky over this everyday story of countryfolk. Like everything else in Lucy Bailey's new ENO production of Janacek's Jenufa, it proved to be much ado about nothing.

Act 1 opens on a sea of yellow spring flowers (designer: Simon Vincenzi). But it is late summer. Is this a vision of eternal spring? An illusion? The flowers appear to be real. People charge through them, trampling them underfoot (symbolic?). At one point Steva - Jenufa's cousin, the playboy who has made her pregnant - entices her to frolic amongst them. She cannot. For her, spring is synonymous with a happiness that - like Steva, the love of her life - is somehow beyond her grasp.

Or am I missing something? Presumably Bailey's intention is to play against the natural order of Janacek's seasonal analogy. We never see the onset of autumn and winter, the seasons of decay. In Acts 2 and 3 we are locked away with Jenufa and her shame. Outside, it might as well always be spring. And beneath all the sweetness and light, the jolly bucolic scenes, lurks a stifling provincialism. Except that we don't feel it.

It's the show that's provincial. Jenufa as soap opera: a lot of hot air and no insight. I didn't even feel a shudder of apprehension as the ramrod figure of the Kostelnicka, Jenufa's stepmother, made her famous entrance in Scene 1. She was lost against the flowers. And focus is so crucial on this of all wide-open stages. We certainly get it in the poky interior of the Kostelnicka's cottage, but where I had hoped Bailey might bring a woman's perceptions to bear on the private relationship between Jenufa and her stepmother, we get the French and Saunders school of domestic melodrama. A lot of open-mouthed, eye-popping, back-to-the-wall, shock- horror, 'Where's my baby?' acting.

There is one truthful, telling moment when the Kostelnicka protectively embraces Jenufa and you feel the warmth of motherly love from a woman who is essentially an emotional cripple - victim of her own bigotry. With an artist like Josephine Barstow, such areas might have been explored to great effect. The intensity of Barstow's work compels you to watch and listen. But she and the rest of this hard-working cast were so patently going it alone - and madly over-compensating in the process. None of them could have given more; but less would have been nice, too. Susan Bullock (Jenufa), Kim Begley (Laca) and David Maxwell Anderson (Steva) are all feisty performers with plenty of voice. They need direction.

Conducting, Sian Edwards sounded more at one with this music than with anything else she's done at ENO. Which maybe isn't saying a great deal. But Janacek's unique juxtaposing of the lyric and the obsessively, jaggedly motoric came over forcefully, and the nocturnal musings of Act 2 were rather beautifully played. In the last act, the Kostelnicka's claustrophobic cottage expands to let in the outside world at last (at least I think that's it - I'm still confused). The orchestra proclaims a new spring bringing hope and forgiveness. But on stage and off, the gloom descended.

In repertoire to 2 July, ENO, London Coliseum, WC2 (071-836 3161)

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