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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Jenůfa (Brno version, 1908; English translation, Edward Downes and Otakar Kraus).
Janice Watson (soprano) Jenůfa; Elizabeth Vaughan (mezzo) Grandmother Buryja; Dame Josephine Barstow (soprano) The Kostelnička; Peter Wedd (tenor) Števa Buryja; Nigel Robson (tenor) Laca Klemeň; Neal Davies (baritone) Foreman at the mill; Alan Fairs (bass) Mayor of the village; Marion McCullough (mezzo) Mayor’s wife; Charlotte Ellett (soprano) Karolka; Claire Hampton (soprano) Jano; Rosie Hay (soprano) Barena; Imelda Drumm (mezzo) Maid; Sarah Pope (mezzo) Village woman;
Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera/Sir Charles Mackerras
Rec. in association with the Peter Moores Foundation.
Rec. Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, July 20th-26th, 2003. DDD

The recording sessions for this Jenůfa followed WNO’s Spring 2003 staging. The confidence of the resultant recording is therefore a direct result of this, plus the advantage of having a leading Janáček interpreter at the helm, Sir Charles Mackerras.

The score used is the original Brno version - the revision for Prague smoothed out some sonorities. A rougher cut is surely more appropriate for a gritty tale of pregnancy outside marriage and its grizzly repercussions.

Mackerras is an acknowledged expert on Janáček and a foremost interpreter of his music, and his ease with the musical language shines though every bar. Orchestral balances are carefully considered so that voices are not overwhelmed, yet none of the emotionalism of the score is underplayed. The sense of theatrical ensemble is strong, and whatever the strengths of individual contributions, the sense of wholeness is what makes this set the success it is.

Janice Watson takes the role of Jenůfa. The stage performances at WNO were, sadly, Susan Chilcott’s last, and she was forced to withdraw from this recording. Watson is impressive. She is fully aware of the expressive range of the part, projecting the persona of a young girl who is capable of real fury (as in the confrontation with Steva, Act 1 Scene 6). Watson is fully up to Janáček’s not inconsiderable demands.

Dame Josephine Barstow is the Kostelnička (Chandos list the role preceded with the definite article. Usually it is listed as just ‘Kostelnička’, but the word does actually mean ‘female church warden’, so they are correct to do so!). Barstow oozes confidence - there is the aural implication of long familiarity with this part. Try, for example, her account of her own experiences of co-dependant alcoholism (CD1, track 5), or her relating of the child’s death in Act 2 (CD 2, track 3). Importantly also, her voice works well with those around it – both here (with Grandmother Buryja, Elizabeth Vaughan) and towards the beginning of Act 2, with Jenůfa herself (when Kostelnička relates the death of the baby to Jenůfa). Perhaps only her curse is not worthy of the part – it is easy to imagine it more vindictive than in the present instance.

Elizabeth Vaughan’s rich and powerful Grandmother is another of the set’s assets. Peter Wedd’s Števa is perhaps a little under-powered; better (especially when he lets his voice open out) is Nigel Robson’s Laca. Of the smaller roles, special mention should go to mezzo Imelda Drumm’s assumption of the Maid, a small part that she makes the most of; the same could be said of soprano Rosie Hay’s Barena (a servant at the mill). Charlotte Ellett provides a youthful sounding Karolka; Marion McCullogh is a clear-voiced Mayor’s wife.

But the star remains Mackerras, whose ability to pace the scenes over a large time-span creates the requisite dramatic canvas. The felicities of Janáček’s scoring emerge as if newly-minted, sometimes inspiring delight, at others horror. It is clear Mackerras has inspired the orchestra of WNO to great things. The recording enables all of the detail to come through, crystal clear.

Unhesitatingly recommended.

Colin Clarke

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