by Rachel Beaumont

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Laugh and the world laughs with you: Jenůfa at ROH

Royal Opera
Royal Opera House
Stalls Circle D54, £9
28 September 2021
ROH page

Sigh. I don’t have enough data, and there’s still time to make a new discovery. But recent experience seems to suggest that, after the lockdowns, after childbirth, my stance on opera is yes to Wagner, no to everything else.

I didn’t dislike Jenůfa in the way I disliked Die Zauberflöte at the ROH last week but I certainly didn’t enjoy it. In fact I think my response is best described as a serious sense-of-humour failure. I recently watched the film Sightseers, where a couple on holiday casually murder numerous bystanders. I acknowledge it as a comedy and I could understand the laughter of those around me. But I did not find it funny and that made for a bleak 90 minutes.

So it was with Jenůfa. I can see why people like it. I can see why people think it’s a good opera. And even in my humourlessness I can admire Janáček’s remarkable use of folk music. But I had a serious sense-of-humour failure over its horrible story, in which a girl’s eight-days-old baby is stolen away by its grandmother and drowned. The body is later discovered, the girl is at first persecuted by her community, the truth comes out and she forgives her mother. The end.

I’ll have to admit that the proximity to my own child’s birth and my clear memories of the following few weeks are the likely reasons behind my finding Jenůfa upsetting-and-not-in-a-good-way. Opera has lots of horrible stories and I’ve previously been fine with brushing them off as worth it for the great music. What is about Jenůfa’s story that is substantially different?

Nevertheless, such is my situation and such was my sense-of-humour failure. I keep saying this and I should probably explain what I mean: fiction, I think, depends on an unwritten contract between creator and audience that the relation of the fiction to any corresponding reality is an allowable space in which the creator can create fiction. Cultural appropriation is one example of where that contract is not agreed and as a result the fiction in question is compromised. I feel something similar is true of Jenůfa. Is it acceptable for Janáček, an elderly man, to write about female experience in this way, or is it exploitation? For many in the audience, and for me in previous performances, it is clearly acceptable. For me now, it feels exploitative.

So I did not enjoy my evening. But I could nevertheless admire the singing of Asmik Grigorian in the title role, whose fruity soubrette seems perfectly suited. Nicky Spence, finally escaped from ENO, is also well cast as Laca. Sadly the same cannot be said for the star billing of Karita Matilla as Kostelnička, and this could be in part why I so much did not enjoy this performance of Jenůfa. Kostelnička demands a true mezzo, not a former soprano, and as when Domingo sang bass Mattila’s voice is loud when it should be soft and soft when it should be loud, as well as generally sounding pushed and rung out. A potentially compromised opera is not pushed over the edge by questionable casting and lacklustre singing.

I thought Claus Guth’s production of Die Frah ohne Schatten was superb. I was not in any position to give a fair assessment of his Jenůfa but I think it’s fair to say that it is not in the same league. Jenůfa’s cages, first made by the chorus and then by their abandoned bed frames, are all very well but not terribly insightful. Hovering animal-headed creatures are an irritating reminder of their inspired use in Die Frau ohne Schatten. David Alden’s more straightforward production for ENO does the same things better. On the plus side, though, got to love ROH’s standing tickets providing an evening of misery at less than a tenner.

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