Janacek: Jenufa

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome 25 November 2008 5 stars

Nuccia Focile (Photo: Clive Barda)There are moments in opera when you feel that a perfect fusion has been achieved between drama, character, expression and music. The character sings what he or she is undergoing at that moment and the orchestral palette expresses what words alone cannot.

The sheer joy of this WNO performance of Janacek's grim, horrible but ultimately inspiring and uplifting tale is that the miracle happened: it was a five star performance in every sense of the term. Director Katie Mitchell should feel proud of her achievement with this production – now ten years old but coming up as fresh and as powerful as the day it was made.

We might start with the conductor, Sian Edwards, who has hit a terrific patch of form at the moment. In complete rapport with the WNO orchestra, she achieved that wonderful sense of balance that is such a feature of Janacek's score: orchestral textures were clear and translucent, internal dialogues between the woodwind and strings were beautifully weighted – the orchestra actually sang. We heard the rhythmic impulses of the mill wheels turning and we heard the sounds of nature all around. And unlike some performances of Jenufa I have heard, Edwards made the joins in all the right places: there was no stopping and starting, but a reading of through-composed opera as it should be. Quite rightly, she got a tremendous ovation at the end.

Then there is the Jenufa of Nuccia Focile, a star singer whom WNO have clearly taken to their collective heart. She sang the part with all the naïveté and tenderness of expression that is in the score, but with a full, strong sound that was an absolute delight to hear. Utterly believable both in her wretchedness and in the compassion and forgiveness that she manages to summon at the end of the opera, Focile gave the strongest performance I have ever seen and heard from her.

Which is just as well, because opposite her as Laca, the man who first slashes her face with a knife so that the philandering Steva will no longer find her attractive, and finally settles down beside her, Peter Hoare impressed hugely. He sings well forward, with a powerful, ringing tone that conveys drama, anger, passion and – ultimately – repentance. This was a great performance of the role and an exciting sing.

Susan Bickley, Nuccia Focile & Peter Hoare (Photo: Clive Barda)As Steva, Stephen Rooke looked the part to perfection – his handsomely cut suit almost looking out of place with the costumes of his fellow villagers – and sang well enough, but as things should be, he was no real match for Laca.

That brings me finally to the Kostelnicka of Susan Bickley, a triumphant assumption of the role. At the outset she clearly has the respect and admiration of the villagers, but there is no real air of menace to her and Bickley managed to personify and project the ordinariness of the character. As we then see her progress into madness, the character undergoes a real metamorphosis before our eyes: the voice becomes darker and more intense, the body is wracked with emotion. I do not think I have ever seen the Act Two ending better done. Quite simply, Bickley is magnificent in the role, even in comparison with the legendary Anja Silja (whose Kostelnicka I have seen three times).

There has been much discussion about Katie Mitchell's use of fourth wall naturalism in opera – it has its vociferous detractors as well as its passionate supporters. In this production she uses the technique in a restrained, subtle way that I found totally convincing. We have a village that interacts, we have onstage characters who mean something to each other and who react in a variety of ways to the tragedy that unfolds before their eyes. In my view, this is a great production.

The final twist – a brief vision of a fair-haired child in a field of lilies, waving uncomprehendingly to some people in the distance – divides the audience. Some think it an inspired touch, others an unnecessary intrusion. I incline to the former view, a marvellous moment to round off a fabulous evening of music theatre at its best. See it if you can!

By Mike Reynolds

Photos: Clive Barda