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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Erica Jeal

Jenůfa review – muscle and lyricism as Rattle leads superb cast through Janáček’s formidable opera

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the London Symphony Orchestra and Agneta Eichenholz in Jenůfa at the Barbican.
Relentless Sir Simon Rattle conducts the London Symphony Orchestra and Agneta Eichenholz in Jenůfa at the Barbican. Photograph: Mark Allan

Simon Rattle’s LSO concerts of Janáček’s operas, which began with The Cunning Little Vixen in 2019 and continued last year with Katya Kabanova, have become red-letter events in the orchestra’s calendar. Jenůfa – arguably the composer’s greatest achievement in opera, and that’s saying something – was to have starred Asmik Grigorian, but her withdrawal was announced a few weeks ago, and she was replaced by the Swedish soprano Agneta Eichenholz. That meant that this performance had at its fulcrum a very different kind of singer: softer-edged, less steely, but still magnetic.

Janáček’s music is a formidable backdrop for a cast of singers, especially when the orchestra is up close on stage with them rather than playing from the pit – and yet more so when it’s played with the almost relentless muscle and lyricism Rattle drew from the LSO here. Eichenholz’s Jenůfa – clutching a shawl around her concert dress, buffeted by the music yet maintaining a natural flow in her singing – seemed the more vulnerable for it. That’s one way of interpreting the character, certainly, although it felt a little underdrawn.

Katarina Karnéus (Kostelnicka) and Ales Briscein (Laca) in perform Janácek’s Jenufa in the Barbican Hall.
Remarkable… Katarina Karnéus (Kostelnicka) and Ales Briscein (Laca) perform Janácek’s Jenufa in the Barbican Hall. Photograph: Mark Allan

Admittedly, almost anyone would have seemed muted next to Aleš Briscein, who sang bitter yet steadfast Laca with a remarkable clarion tenor that cut through everything the orchestra could throw at it. His fellow tenor Nicky Spence, swaggering on in a leather biker jacket, sang stylishly and brought heaps of character to no-good Steva, activating the honey in his tone as he turned on the charm. Katarina Karnéus seized on the complex character of the Kostelnička, Jenufa’s stepmother, who sees how being an unwed mother will ruin her stepdaughter’s life and so risks damnation by murdering the baby before anyone else knows of it: severity gave way to humanity as she stared fearfully into eternity after her crime.

Supporting roles were strongly cast, especially Claire Barnett-Jones as gossipy Barena, and the LSO Chorus was excellent, the women whooping it up as uninvited wedding guests in the last act. Rattle emphasised the music’s sweep and motion; his approach tended to iron out Janáček’s moments of strangeness or violence, but the glow of the ending really shone.

• Repeated on Sunday at the Barbican, London.

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