Opera: Love in an indoor climate

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The Independent Culture
KATIE MITCHELL'S staging of Jenufa is Welsh National Opera's first inroad into the old Pountney/Bjernson Janacek cycle, the most durable of which, The House of the Dead, was revived as recently as last summer.

There is no drastic reassessment: Jenufa is still a psychologically acute study of love struggling to adjust to a world where the old social and moral certainties are disintegrating. But the focus is new, sharp and sometimes provocative. Fresh from Chekhov, Mitchell scraps the village green elements of the action and moves it indoors. The world looks in (occasionally bursts in) through doors and windows but, like the village girls at Jenufa's wedding, it is uninvited and bodes no good.

After recovering from the shock of an indoor first act (and having forgiven WNO for the bizarre decision to play the work in Czech), I enjoyed almost everything about this production. Vicki Mortimer's designs catch perfectly the flatness of Jenufa's Moravian life until she realises the depth of Laca's love. But they avoid the symbolism. The tone is precise and the detail authentic.

True, she has her lapses. The wretched plastic baby in the third act is certainly one truthful detail too many, just as the levitating house wall at the end (double underlining Jenufa's mental release) is one too few. But the portraiture is so vivid, and above all so musical, that one can forget the odd vulgarism. The key lies in Mitchell's idea of a far- from-youthful Laca, and a gauchely virile Steva: the inward and the outward starkly contrasted in another way. Nigel Robson makes much of Laca's spiritual refinement within an unprepossessing frame, while John Daszak lumbers around uncomprehendingly as Steva. Both are excellent.

I'm less convinced by Suzanne Murphy's Kosteinicka, for some reason bourgeoisified in dress, and only intermittently tortured in presence. Her singing too, is patchy, though strong in the final scene. Rosalind Sutherland's Jenufa is problematical for rather different reasons. The voice is exquisite but the manner slightly dim, though she is very touching in the crucial scenes with Laca. Alas, she is often drowned in the lower regions by Daniel Harding's committed but sometimes unrestrained handling of Janacek's awkward balances. It's a fault this young conductor ought to address, because the feeling of his Janacek is superb - full of colour and emotional energy, but always accurately paced, and for the most part incisively executed.

In Cardiff until 30 September (01222 878889), then on tour to Oxford, Swansea, Southampton, Birmingham, Bristol and Liverpool. Further details 01222 464666