Jenufa, Arcola Theatre, London

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Timberlake Wertenbaker recounts in the programme/playtext that she was having such trouble crafting a translation of Gabriela Preissová’s play Her Stepdaughter that in the end she wrote her own version as an “adaptation” of what she remembered from the original. The result is limber and atmospheric, but even though this is the British premiere of the play that sired Janácek’s opera, I perceive no compelling reason for the story to be retold in this way.

Wertenbaker’s version contains all the salient elements familiar from the opera. Most strikingly, the English title remains a misnomer, as attention centres not on the unfortunate Jenufa but on her stepmother, Kostelnichka.

So convinced is she that she is acting both in Jenufa’s best interests and in a godly manner that she first breaks her stepdaughter’s engagement to the drunken, rakish mill owner Steva and then murders Jenufa’s child by him in order that she might marry unencumbered.

I do not think I have ever seen Paola Dionisotti turn in a performance that was less than compelling. Here, as Kostelnichka, she is not ostentatious in her rightness. Jodie McNee’s Jenufa is no challenge for the focus of the play, and Oscar Pearce finds as much of a through line as possible in Latsa’s transformation from a creature gnarled by jealousy of his half-brother Steva to a devoted suitor and husband. Patti Love almost steals her few scenes as the mayor’s wife, trying to get one up on Kostelnichka.

The production bears the palpable stamp of Russian-born director Irina Brown. Events and tones unfold in their own time and space without being marshalled towards a preordained vision. This is a mixed blessing.

The vocal harmonic forms of eastern Europe have become strikingly popular in stage productions. Songs, whether folk or formal, seem to take up perhaps 20 of the 100 uninterrupted minutes’ playing time here. Perhaps there is a sense that the opera is missing, that a different identity needs to be imprinted.
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