Jenůfa in Stockholm

Jenůfa is, musically and dramatically, such a powerful work that it almost never fails to make a huge impact. Yet during the first act of the performance at Stockholm’s Royal Opera, I sensed that the audience was not fully engaged. My first thoughts were that the problem might lie with the musical interpretation. Was the conductor Jonathan Darlington pushing the score forward too hard, not allowing it sufficient breathing space? And then I noticed that some of the people around me were not watching the stage intently but rather had their heads down. Surely at Jenůfa, of all operas, they could not be finding more attractive the material on their mobile phones? The truth emerged when an announcement was made during the interval: the performance had been selected as the first to try out a new system for rendering opera more accessible. Those with mobile phones could use an App which would display a translation of the text as well as an explanation of the plot. Unfortunately, there had been technical problems and the system had not worked.

Why such a system should be deemed beneficial, when surtitles are displayed above the stage and a summary of the plot is given in the programme, defeats me entirely. Anyway, after the interval and the departure of a significant number of spectators, the performance continued and it was a very good one. All of the principal soloists, Sara Olsson (Jenůfa), Katarina Dalayman (Kostelnička), Jesper Taube (Laca) and Magnus Vigilius (Števa) offered strong, vocally assured and dramatically internalised interpretations of their roles and were entirely at home in the Janáček idiom.

Annilese Miskimmon’s production was shared with Scottish Opera and her idea of transposing the setting to the West of Ireland towards the end of the First World War might have had a greater resonance in Glasgow than in Stockholm. But with her realistic approach, the constraints of traditional Catholic belief in a rural environment certainly came powerfully across, as did her portrayal of feminine strength and integrity.

Jonathan Darlington’s interpretation was infused with excitement and passion and it won me over, not the least when in the final act an upsurge of lyricism proved irresistible. In any event, it is of the essence in a good Janáček performance that the stabbing rhythms and jagged phrases should reverberate throughout the auditorium. The audience should feel them, a phenomenon not to be thwarted by Apps and the like.