Culture and Civilisations

A Czech conductor in Cardiff

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A Czech conductor in Cardiff

(c) Clive Barda

Janaček s Jenufa , an opera about love and marriage, is a kind of counterpart to Smetana s Bartered Bride. As Kafka’s friend and executor, the German-speaking Czech writer Max Brod wrote, Janaček is “Smetana in the minor key”. It was the composer s first international success: a tragedy of love, jealousy and loss within a family setting, giving voice to human nature, time and forgiveness.  

The story, based on a play by Gabriella Preissov á first performed in 1904, starts with the fact that Jenufa is in love with her cousin, the smooth-talking Števa, who has made her pregnant. The key to the drama is the Kostelnička (church sacristan), step-mother to Jenufa, and aunt to Števa. His half-brother Laca has loved Jenufa since they were children growing up together. In a fit of jealousy, Laca deliberately slashes Jenufa on the cheek so that the unworthy Števa will reject her.

The Kostelni čka confines the pregnant Jenufa to the house, pretending she is on a trip to Vienna, and after the birth brings Števa to see his son. When he rejects the baby, she turns to Laca and rushes out to kill the baby so there is no impediment to his accepting Jenufa; later she tells her stepdaughter it died while she was ill of a fever. Jenufa accepts this, but when she and Laca celebrate their forthcoming wedding, a dead baby is discovered under the melting ice, and Jenufa is blamed — until the Kostelnička finally admits all.  

Janaček s music elevates this tragedy to a gripping intensity, given terrific effect under the baton of WNO s music director Tomaš Hanus, who is Czech. With the recent bloody Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Czechs feel the pain viscerally in terms of their own history. In 1968 Czechoslovakia was invaded by the Soviet Union that Putin is trying to re-establish, and before starting the performance Hanus spoke to the audience, saying, Let s play today for all humanity .” The orchestra responded with huge emotion and energy, playing Janaček as if their lives depended on it.

The singers too gave it everything, with Elizabeth Llewellyn a lyrical and distressed Jenufa, with Rhodri Prys Jones as her good-looking, beloved but feckless and unpredictable Števa. Ms Llewellyn was hugely dramatic as she senses something has happened to her baby, and exhibited enormous pain when she realises her beloved Števuška is dead. As Laca, the Slovak tenor Peter Berger delivered tremendous passion and lyricism, and as the Kostelnič ka, Czech soprano Eli š ka Weissov á nearly sang everyone else off the stage with her powerful and determined presence.

In a tremendous performance of this revival of Katie Mitchell s sensitive production , several WNO chorus members contributed very fine solo roles, and Sian Goronwy made an impressive bass as the Mayor. When all was over and we were released from the intensity of the drama, the conductor addressed the audience again to ask for a moment s silence for the suffering of Ukraine, and the audience stood. An evening to remember.

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 91%
  • Interesting points: 97%
  • Agree with arguments: 90%
9 ratings - view all

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