Love and pain and the whole damn thing

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THE chairman of Yorkshire Water, who famously washes in an egg cup, would be dismayed to know that no new production at his own local Opera North passes muster these days without soaking half the cast and, potentially, a good number of the orchestra in his precious commodity. The Jenufa that opened on Wednesday is no exception. And although there's every excuse for it, in that Jenufa takes place beside a mill whose turning wheel is represented in the score, I can't help feeling that David Freeman Memorial Water Features are becoming something of a fetish on the Leeds stage.

Not that this Jenufa is done by Freeman. It's directed and designed by Tom Cairns and, in fairness, is good-looking in a way that serves the piece well. Janacek's mature operas work like aural origami, engineered with simple, clean-cut ingenuity and stylised boldness; and assuming Jenufa to count as a mature opera, Cairns's designs follow suit. They have the striking, semi-abstract quality of paper sculpture. They are also beautifully lit by Wolfgang Gobbel. I can think of no lights-man with a more obvious claim to creativity.

But opera shall not live by lights alone; and I wasn't wildly impressed by much else. Apart from Josephine Barstow's knuckle-whitening Kostelnicka, who dominates the show (a bit too easily), the first-night performances were promising but not quite there. The voices weren't even promising. And Stephanie Friede - an American soprano with a burgeoning career, imported for the title role - was a conspicuous disappointment. After half an hour the time began to drag.

However, there is refuge in the piece itself: a wondrous score that blossoms into greatness in the last 10 minutes. I talked just now about the "assumption" that Jenufa counted among Janacek's mature operas, and it is a borderline case. It comes steeped in the world of Moravian folk tradition that informed the composer's earlier operas, but Jenufa also transcends that tradition. It cuts back the frills, the local colour, and homes in on a claustrophobically interrelated group of people driven to do desperate things by (and this is the poignant paradox of the opera) love.

Jenufa's face is slashed because Laca, the perpetrator, loves her. Jenufa's baby is murdered because her foster- mother, the murderess, loves her too. The love-pain equation packs a devastating punch that carries through from the librettist's words to the composer's music; and the thrust of the music, at least, is taken good care of at Leeds by Opera North's music director Paul Daniel, whose feel for Janacek isn't quite in the Mackerras or Andrew Davis class but has a definite authority. Speaking as a southerner, I do think it's about time ENO made him an offer he can't refuse.

Orchestral reputations are won (and sometimes lost) these days by project work, and the Bournemouth Symphony's reputation has been dizzily high recently with the success of its complete cycle of Vaughan Williams's nine symphonies: by all accounts the first there's been and, I'm sure, a landmark in our understanding of the cumulative power of these extraordinary scores. In the judgement of music history - governed as it usually is from a European centralist point of view - dear old VW tends to be marginalised as a muddler with aspirations. But for me he has always been a visionary genius whose technique isn't text-book but whose best work has an inner spirit that attacks my soul more gloriously than almost any other music I have known. More prosaically, it also establishes the basis of the modern English musical remaissance - as Elgar never did - by shrugging off once and for all the cramping precedents of 19th-century Teutonic symphonism. That'll teach 'em.

Anyway, the cycle finished on Monday at the Barbican with Richard Hickox - who has been in charge throughout - conducting Symphonies Nine and Two; and though the playing was uneven (dubious intonation in the brass) it was committed, strong, and made a rehabilitative case for No 9, which isn't one of VW's most obvious achievements.

Written at the age of 85 (in 1958), it chews the cud of previous work in a way that defenders would call summatory and detractors regurgitative. No 2 (written half a century before) is a far finer score and fascinatingly transitional, in that it seems to have one foot in the old, confident world of Edwardian England and the other in the darker, less comfortable but ultimately transcendent world that VW's symphonies would subsequently inhabit. No 2 is called "A London Symphony" and its movements are linked with specific places like Hampstead Heath and Bloomsbury Square. But you have only to hear the opening bars to know that VW's intentions are more metaphysical than touristic. This symphony doesn't look at London; it looks through it, transforming vernacular details like the jingling harnesses of hansom cabs into the portent of some deeper, preternatural world beyond. The music registers what Gerard Manley Hopkins would have called the "inscape" of the city.

Finally, a word about another series, Britten Songs, which has been running at the Wigmore Hall. It reached a pivotal point on Tuesday with a recital by Sarah Walker and Malcolm Martineau featuring Winter Words, the cycle to texts by Thomas Hardy; and Winter Words is central to Britten's work in that it defines the longing-for-lost-innocence leitmotif that coloured his entire creative life. Ms Walker (mezzo) sings the songs transposed down into lower keys approved by Britten for Dame Janet Baker, and some of them lose their bleak, thin-toned ironic edge as a result. She sings about the Journeying Boy as though she wants to mother him, which isn't quite right.

But my word, what singing! The technique, the sense of line, the sheer musicianship proclaim an artist in her prime. And a performer. In the encores - there were lots of them - she had the audience in her hand, weeping with laughter at her campy cabaret (which generates a certain following) but stunned to silence by the beauty of that rare jewel among Britten's folk-song settings, "Sail On". It was managed, calculated theatre but formidably accomplished, utterly professional and one of the most memorable Wigmore nights I've had all year.

'Jenufa': Leeds Opera North, 0113 245 9351, 14, 16 & 18 Nov.

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