Opera Janacek's Jenufa Opera North, Leeds Jan Smaczny

`As a series of exquisite tableaux, this could hardly be bettered, but without a stronger sense of drama, Jenufa is nothing'

Perhaps it is the frank unambiguity of the message in Janacek's operas that preserves them from the worst kind of production excess. The history of these works in this country has been marked pretty consistently by un-neurotic clarity of interpretation. Having got used to directors not going too far with Janacek, it feels curiously disorienting when they don't go far enough. Opera North's new Jenufa, uncomplicated and rich in primary colours, is a case in point. Tom Cairns's set is a major player in communicating his view of the piece, and yet his production at times fails to register key moments or overplays them to such an extent that Janacek's passionately involving piece topples over into melodrama.

Take, for example, the Kostelnicka's silencing of the vengeful villagers in the penultimate scene: not only is she on her feet, but she already seems the centre of attention even before calling the intruders to order. And what a crowd - all beautifully arranged about her in a circle, just waiting for something to do. Unsteady pacing of this kind undercut Laca's wounding of Jenufa and almost scuttled the end of Act 2, which lost some of its usual appalling force. Cairns's most potent idea is the set, which gradually squeezes the protagonists into an ever tighter space - a suitable image for the deliciously observed awkwardness of the final act - although the solid black background against which Jenufa and Laca play out the final catharsis seemed a fundamental negation of Janacek's message. As a series of exquisite tableaux, this staging could hardly be bettered, but without a stronger sense of dramatic vitality Jenufa is nothing.

This was a pity since nearly everything else about this Jenufa was very strong. Josephine Barstow makes an eloquent and moving Kostelnicka in the last act, but there is room to develop a more formidable presence earlier on. Despite a throat infection, Stephanie Friede was admirable as Jenufa, allowing the frightened teenager of Act 1 to grow up into the sad, experienced figure of the finale while still retaining an appealing freshness. She is well partnered by Julian Gavin's resonant Laca; in fact both he and Neill Archer's Steva are attractive and believable stage presences as the rival brothers. Most remarkable of all was Pauline Tinsley - the finest Kostelnicka of her day - as Grandmother Buryovka: her crystal-clear diction and complete identification with the character did much to raise the dramatic temperature.

Paul Daniel and the orchestra were on blistering form. The use of the Mackerras/ Tyrrell reconstruction of the original score was crucial to an interpretation that was as compellingly hard-edged as Janacek's initial conception. Daniel seemed ready to embrace the score's occasional awkwardness as a means of increasing the impact of the drama; the bite of the brass writing always made sense and the absence of a comforting romantic glow supplied the sense of purpose the staging so often seemed to lack.

n In rep at Leeds Grand to 18 November. Booking: 0113 245 9351

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

    £28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

    £16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

    Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

    £16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

    Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

    £17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

    Day In a Page

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk