It’s unusual to set an opera in a Communist housing block, and tell the story of an unmarried mother so shamed by her village that her baby is thrown under the ice.
My partner that night didn’t much like Jenufa -“ she thought opera was just about love and aristocrats. I won’t be taking her again.
Jenufa was written a hundred years ago by the Czech composer Leos Janacek, but as with his other operas has been fully appreciated only in the last decades. Opera Australia was a big player in this new popularity, when they asked theatre director Neil Armfield to direct not just one but four Janacek operas. This then is a revival of the 1998 production.
Armfield brings his fine eye for character and dramatic detail to them all, plus an empathy he shares with Janacek for the flawed individual struggling against a chorus of moral disapproval. And so this Jenufa is set in a tenement flat in provincial Czechoslovakia, its 1950s poverty and religious orthodoxy wonderfully detailed by designer Dan Potra.
There lives Jenufa and her bitterly religious mother, called the Kostelnicka, and, nearby, Jenufa’s grandmother. It’s a neurotic matriarchy which becomes really distraught when the Kostelnicka, challenged by the nosy villagers, admits to murdering her daughter’s new baby.
Her shame and Jenufa’s ruined life in the village were apparently just too hard to bear. The handsome but fickle father Steva had no desire to wed Jenufa. Luckily a rather unexciting but devoted relative, Laca, is forgiving and even at the end still keen to marry her.
This realistic story of village sorrows is made epic by Janacek’s urgent music. Sparse and sharp, it expresses a dramatic modernity familiar in later 20th century music. But Jenufa also retains a conventional orchestration of melody which, mixed with Janacek’s folk-inspired rhythms, makes his music compelling and interesting but not alienating.
Cheryl Barker brings warmth and a touching na?t?o the tragedy of Jenufa and Elizabeth Whitehouse has formidable presence as the possessed Kostelnicka. Heather Begg as the grandmother completes the matriarchy, three striking generations of singers.
Jenufa is not a sweeping operatic experience of ecstasy but, for the opera lover, it is a finely integrated telling in drama and music of provincial sorrow and conformity.
Jenufa is at the Sydney Opera House until 21 October.