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

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