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Wednesday 08 October 2008

Review: NZ Opera's Jenůfa

Posted in: Performance
By Larry Jenkins - 25th September 2008

Review: Jenůfa, an Opera in 3 acts by Leos Janacek, libretto by the composer.

Anne Sophie Duprels, Margaret Medlyn, Tom Randle, Derek Hill, Helen Medlyn. Conductor Wyn Davies. NBR New Zealand Opera, Chapmann Tripp Opera Chorus, Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.


Janacek's operas are virtually ignored, or have been up until now, in this country. A pity that, for of all European composers, Janacek 'fits' in New Zealand more than most.

He was a rugged individual with a keen sense of his country, its strengths and weaknesses, and had a deep love of the peasantry and the attendant folk traditions. Quotes from the folk idiom often appear in his works, and the themes he chose to dramatise are more closely linked conceptually to the Italian verismo than to any other operatic category.

In more ways than one, it has been a bold move for NBR New Zealand Opera to take on Jenůfa – not the least being the reduced audiences it has predictably attracted. I attended the second performance and the house was woefully small. As fate sometimes wills, those who have chosen to stay away will have missed the most satisfying operatic event since NBR NZ Opera came into existence. The last operatic production mounted in this country that gave as much pleasure was Auckland Opera's production of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte in the nineties.

The pleasurable assault on the senses began with curtain up and the first view of the borrowed Glyndebourne set by Tobias Hoheisel. Nicholas Lehnhoff's 1989 production has become a classic and rightly so, for the box-framed sets are models of economy and effective use of space. The colours are rich and vibrant, costumes very much in the right period, and Ashley Dean's restaging is faithful to the original almost down to the smallest movement of the cast.

And what a cast! Anne Sophie Duprels is a top-class Jenůfa; and she and the Laca in this production, American Tom Randle, have come to it having just performed together in the same roles in London. Both are extremely sought after artists and the impact of their uncommon rapport was felt deeply across the house. Randle has a vast repertoire ranging from Purcell to Peter Grimes and his carrying power may well see him turn to more dramatic roles. (Indeed, he has already sung Loge in Das Rheingold.)

The opera's Czech title, which translates as "Her Stepdaughter" reflects more accurately the equal importance of the role of the Kostelnička, the tortured figure who chooses to protect her family by a horrible deed, murdering Jenůfa's illegitimate baby to shield them all from the claustrophobically judgemental villagers. Margaret Medlyn is quite amazing in this role. Her shining vocal performance is only an extension of her amazing dramatic sense, and the second and third acts are almost completely dominated by her, despite the strong international cast.

NBR NZ Opera's Music Director Wyn Davies is in total control, obviously a Janacek devotee, and the Auckland Philharmonia give an admirable reading of a score probably unfamiliar to most of them.

There are so many positives here that any negative criticism would be pointless, and anyone who manages to miss the last performances will certainly be the poorer for it.

The Genesis Energy Spring Season of Janáček's JENŮFA plays in Auckland until 27 September, then visits Wellington 11-18 October. More details are on the link below.

Larry Jenkins - 25th September 2008