Jenůfa suffers a slashed cheek after an argument and struggle with Laka.

Pictures: Clive Barda


Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome


Leoš Janáček's 1904 tale of scandal, despair and guilt in a Czech village is not the best known of operas, which is perhaps the reason for the modest attendance at Welsh National Opera’s wonderful production at Birmingham Hippodrome.

WNO presented Janáček’s better known and delightful The Cunning Little Vixen in 2013 and again in 2019, a whimsical opera with shades of political comment on social justice hidden beneath a light hearted cloak of charming fun. Jenůfa is a different proposition entirely.

One of the first operas to be written in prose, this is an opera devoid of fun, a bleak telling of the predicament faced by Jenůfa, an attractive worker at the mill run by Števa, who is to inherit the business when his grandmother, sung by Sian Meinir,, the owner, dies.

The family relationships all get a bit complicated so best to just go with the flow. Števa was to marry Jenůfa but becomes engaged to the mayor’s daughter instead – not knowing that Jenůfa is pregnant.

stepmother and Steva

Elishka Weissova as Kostelnichka Burjovka and Adam Gilbert as Števa 

While spendthrift, boasting Števa is loved by Jenůfa, she is in turn loved by Števa’s half brother Laca, who works at the mill and, keeping it in the family, so to speak all three are cousins with the grandmother the common link.

Unmarried mothers bring a lifelong shame on mother, child and family, so Jenůfa’s stepmother hides her away, saying she has gone to Vienna, to keep the pregnancy and birth secret, and when Števa refuses to marry her or even to acknowledge the child, she decides the best thing for all concerned is to kill the baby.

It all comes out in a dramatic finale at Jenůfa’s wedding to Laca, when the body is found and all the shame, guilt, anger and hurt explode, but after three bleak acts of angst there is a surpising twist – Janáček manages a happy ending.

It is fair to say, as operas go, this isn’t a barrel of laughs, and being in prose there are no arias or chorus anthems to hum on the way home.

There is nothing that will appear on any Opera’s greatest hits album, but the music is tuneful, dramatic at times, sometimes insistent, sometimes sad and finally joyful. It is never jarring or disjointed and played with the clarity and order we have come to expect from the WNO orchestra, conducted by the enthusiastically animated Wyn Davies.


Peter Berger as Laca

And, despite there being no songs or arias, the singing, as is the norm with WNO, was exemplary.

Australian soprano Tanya Hurst was a wonderful Jenůfa with a clear voice and pleasing tone as well as adding drama to her moments of happiness along with drowning in the depths of despair, while tenor Adam Gilbert gives Števa an air of a man about town, or at least village, a man knowing his worth; after all, he is rich and a major employer, and wealth and status gives him an eye for the girls in his mill. A fine voice with an air of one who does not have to worry or care.

Peter Berger, a tenor hailing from Slovakia will be almost on home turf as Laca singing in Czech and he does it with power and emotion. He is the angry, young man of the piece, desperately in love and, in the end, willing to stand by Jenůfa no matter what.

The villain of the piece for, in her eyes, all the right reasons, is the stepmother, Kostelnička Buryjovka, sung by Czech soprano Eliška Weissová. A powerful voice conveys every emotion from anger at Števa to guilt and despair as she takes the fateful decision to end the baby’s life.

A mention too for Viki Mortimer’s design, three sets, the mill, the stepmother’s parlour, and finally a simple room for wedding guests, all with a look of utilitarian 1900’s East European authenticity, along with excellent period costumes all augmented by Nigel Edwards’ sympathetic and life-like lighting. Directed by Eloise Lally this is perhaps not an opera in a form the general public would recognise, it is more a sung play – indeed it is based on a Czech play, and once that is accepted it is a story that takes you splendidly along on the ride through the darkness to its uplifting end.

Roger Clarke



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