Katie Mitchell’s Welsh National Opera production of Janácek’s Jenufa has been around for just over a decade. Yet in this revival, it came up fresher and more alive than Paul Curran’s barely two-month-old Otello, which played the previous night.
Mitchell oversaw the revival herself and it showed. The sheer detail of characterisation was what made this production so real. This was a believable portrait of an entire community, its characters often delineated through body language alone.
With strong vocal performances from the principals, that same attention to characterisation lifted the evening into another class. Stephen Rooke’s dapper, emotionally-crippled Števa slumped against the wall as his same-day hangover began to throb. Nuccia Focile’s affecting Jenufa sat hunched over in misery, hands clasped tensely together; Peter Hoare’s Laca, a study in awkward decency, his face crumpling with anxious devotion and hands shaking with nerves as he self-consciously poured slivovitz for his wedding guests.
But Susan Bickley’s tremendous Kostelniuka was the evening’s stand-out; a mixture of unshakeable dignity and troubled humanity that made it hard to understand why this role was ever seen as unsympathetic. Bickley’s voice blazed thrillingly in her prayers for a better life and trembled with emotion in her final confession of guilt.
Vicki Mortimer’s muted realist sets and Mitchell’s few – but carefully deployed – coups de theâtre kept the drama focussed on what really mattered. Not that Sian Edwards’ urgent, luminously-coloured account of the score (the WNO orchestra on radiant form) left that in any question. This was a Jenufa that left you feeling as if you’d been through the emotional wringer – exactly as it should.