Asmik Grigorian, Karita Mattila, Saimir Pirgu, Nicky Spence, Elena Zilio, David Stout, Jacquelyn Stucker; Royal Opera House Orchestra/Henrik Nánási; dir. Claus Guth (London, 2021)
Opus Arte DVD: OA1351D; Blu-ray: OABD7302D 139 mins
It’s love that liberates in Claus Guth’s production of Janáček’s breakthrough opera, Jenůfa, for the Royal Opera, Covent Garden. In the blazing final musical moments, Jenůfa and Laca stand outside the shuttered curtain that seems to have imprisoned the whole opera for the last three acts.
There are shutters behind the action, too, that scarcely let in the daylight; and Kostelnička’s house, where she hides her pregnant stepdaughter, Jenůfa, is an iron cage around which 19th-century black-bonneted villagers hover like birds of prey. As the tragedy unravels it seems more Ibsen or Strindberg than Janáček as Jenůfa finally accepts the man who despoiled her beauty with a slash of his knife.
Guth has a fine cast to work with. Karita Mattila as Kostelnička seethes with fury as she kills Jenůfa’s illegitimate baby son, doing the wrong thing for the right reasons before sliding into mortal terror and it has to be said head-clasping melodrama. Asmik Grigorian’s Jenůfa, always a little in her stepmother’s shadow, is haunted throughout with only a whisp of a smile. But her waking dream when Kostelnička has taken the baby to the mill race is eerily beautiful.
Nicky Spence is a properly lyrical Laca, and Saimir Pirgu’s strutting Števa, the cause of all the grief, is both selfish and frightened. In the pit Henrik Nánási makes every detail count – including that persistent monotone rattle of the xylophone representing the turning mill wheel. Nánási understands the architecture of Janáček’s score, too, building each climax with proper care as the Royal Opera House Orchestra play their hearts out. In all, it’s a very fine performance.