Finding Hope in the Darkness: Jenůfa at the Opéra de Rouen Normandie

Janáček – Jenůfa

Jenůfa – Natalya Romaniw
Kostelnička – Christine Rice
Laca Klemeň – Kyle van Schoonhoven
Števa Buryja – Dovlet Nurgeldiyev
Grandmother Buryja – Doris Lamprecht
Mill Foreman – Yoann Dubruque
Mayor of the Village – Victor Sicard
Karolka – Séraphine Cotrez
Barena – Yete Queiroz
Mayor’s Wife – Aline Martin
Maid – Lise Nougier
Jano – Clara Guillon

Chœur accentus – Opéra de Rouen Normandie, Orchestre de l’Opéra de Rouen Normandie / Antony Hermus.
Stage director – Calixto Bieito.

Opéra de Rouen Normandie, Rouen, France.  Saturday, April 30th, 2022.

Jenůfa is an opera that has as its core, what is perhaps the ultimate crime – child killing – and yet it also shows us that through forgiveness we can find inner peace.  For its production of this work, given over three performances, of which tonight was the last, the Opéra de Rouen Normandie imported Calixto Bieito’s 2007 staging form Stuttgart – tonight revived by Nina Dudek.  The house gave us a cast of mainly local singers in the supporting roles, with the principal roles taken by international guests.

Bieito sets the action in an industrial setting, which could be any post-communist, or indeed post-Catholic, modern-day country, with the first two acts taking place within disused areas of a garment factory, and the final act taking place in the workshop itself.  This is a society of heavy drinking and sexual freedom, yet also one where religion has been used as both a source of strength and oppression.  He brought out fully the dichotomy between Jenůfa’s initial freedom and lust for life, with the starkly superstitious and indeed paranoid world of the Kostelnička.  Similarly, in Act 3, he brought out the value and purpose that people find through work, particularly as a way of finding redemption and a way forward following the most unspeakable tragedies. 

Photo: © Marion Kerno

A constant thread in Bieito’s work is his focus on telling women’s stories – and this Jenůfa is no exception.  He also doesn’t shy away from showing us horrific violence – the Kostelnička’s killing of the baby right in front of us makes it unbearable to watch, particularly as Christine Rice’s Kostelnička seems so quiet and reasonable.  That quiet reasonableness, however, seems to mask a devastating paranoia – the fact that murder took place in front of a wall of graffiti covered with multiple repetitions of the word ‘wow’, which surely for someone with the Kostelnička’s level of paranoia could have been seeing the word ‘mom’ instead.  The staging abounds in small insights such as this and, the way Natalya Romaniw’s Jenůfa sang her prayer full of desperate hope, seemingly aware deep down of what had happened to her baby, yet urgently seeking optimism, was extremely affecting.  This mapping of Jenůfa’s journey, from a fun-loving, yet slightly insecure young woman, to a source of strength and forgiveness pays testament to the power of the human condition to find a light in the darkness.  Indeed, Bieito takes us to the bleakest of places, yet also shows that we can find hope after the ultimate tragedy. 

Photo: © Marion Kerno

What also struck me tonight was how his staging felt at one with Janáček’s score.  Whether in the Act 1 celebrations, or in the empty coldness of Act 2, it was the closing scene that gave us such a sense of warmth and optimism that served to remind us that yes, there’s horror in the world, but as humans we can also give it hope and beauty.  And in so many respects, the character of Jenůfa embodies this.  I found this so much more convincing that Katie Mitchell’s jaded cynicism in Amsterdam, for instance.  The personenregie was incredibly intricate, the stage filled with genuinely identifiable and believable personalities.

Photo: © Marion Kerno

Romaniw gave us a radiant Jenůfa.  Her soprano possesses a unique combination of Celtic warmth and Slavic metal.  She had clearly worked so hard on the text, using it as the starting point for the line and as a tool to illustrate vocal colour.  Her soprano is radiant on top, but can lose a little quality and become grainy at lower dynamics.  She is however, the owner of a rich and full chest register, and the registers throughout are all fully integrated.  Romaniw clearly has a well-schooled technique and is an engaging actress.  Indeed, I did wonder if she has looked at Ariadne, as I imagine this is a role that would suit her well. 

Photo: © Marion Kerno

Rice was a very different Kostelnička to what we often hear.  Less big voiced and larger than life, and more an elegant, considered woman who hides a great deal of anger inside.  Her Kostelnička was beautifully sung, in total command of the tessitura and, as with Romaniw, with the text ideally clear.  While this was an interesting interpretation of a complex role, I did miss a bigger voice and more dominant stage presence in the role.  That said, Rice had completely dedicated herself to the demands of the production and gave us a performance of intelligence and feeling.

Photo: © Marion Kerno

Dovlet Nurgeldiyev’s Števa was very well sung.  His was a highly musical interpretation, mastering the high-lying tessitura with ease, and combined with a swaggering stage presence.  That larger-than-life swagger was somewhat at odds with his well-schooled and elegant singing – lacking perhaps in the brutal beefiness the role ideally needs.  That said, it was a pleasure to hear it so well sung.  Kyle van Schoonhoven sang Laca with a big, bold tenor.  This is a voice that sits quite high, and he’s likely to have a very bright future in those big, stratospheric Strauss roles.  He’s also an engaging actor, giving us a very real sense of Laca’s need to repair the damage he had caused.  Doris Lamprecht was an energetic Grandmother, holding the stage with ease, with her music sung in a chestnut-toned mezzo.  The supporting roles were well taken, especially Victor Sicard’s handsomely-sung Mayor.  The chorus was on admirable form, if perhaps slightly understaffed with 28 singers.  The clarity of tone was most agreeable and ensemble was tight, but because of the sheer numbers, and the subsequent lack of volume, the impact of their singing was slightly blunted.

The house orchestra was on good form for Antony Hermus.  Attack was as sharp as the knife central to the plot, and tuning throughout was exemplary.  Hermus highlighted some interesting details – the violence of the opening of Act 2 felt incredibly foreboding.  That said, there were some awkward gear changes at the end of Act 1, and there were quite a few moments throughout where tension and forward momentum sagged.  His reading felt ultimately somewhat inconsistent, although there were some interesting moments undoubtedly, and the quality of the playing he obtained from the orchestra was impressive. 

This Jenůfa is the work of a theatrical genius.  Bieito gives us a reading that is so considered and logical, a deeply felt musing on the power of forgiveness and finding hope in darkness.  It’s also one that feels so much at one with the music, amplifying it to heighten its impact.  What will stay with me tonight is Bieito’s profound understanding of the multifaceted nature of the human condition and the depth of humanity that abounded in this staging.  Vocally impressive and conducted with some insight, this was a memorable evening in the theatre, one that reminded us of opera’s power to illuminate and transform.  It was received with a resounding ovation from the Rouen public. 

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