It’s Thursday night and the polling stations are set to close, but JenÅ¯fa is dawdling. While our nation lies all-too invested in one kind of dilemma, our leading lady, with her metaphorical pen (or is that pencil?) hovering over two rivalling options, is decidedly undecided about how to make her mark. By one box she has Å teva, her leather-clad hit-and-run impregnator with swivelling hips and a biker ringmaster’s flair; next to the other, there’s his half-brother, with his synthetic work clothes, a knife in his hands, a jealous need to slice up some beauty, and an arising sense of passion that’s about as flammable as his trousers. In short, Jen just wants a ginger geezer who is loosely related to her. And who hasn’t got two hours and forty minutes to spare for that?
According to Laca, beautiful JenÅ¯fa has the power to rip the souls out of men – but in the ENO’s production under David Alden’s direction, such a claim is hard to believe. In the end, JenÅ¯fa doesn’t really get to vote – she just obediently complies with the decisions made by others. At the start, celestial powers have their say. Delighted that her betrothed has escaped conscription, our titular lady cries “God has only saved you from being a soldier / so that we may soon be married”. Seeking his own chunk of control, Laca puts a stop to JenÅ¯fa’s engagement by destroying the currency that was her beauty, like Farage destroyed the pound. As the community shuns JenÅ¯fa, Laca takes his bit of chopped eye candy to go and cut some wedding cake. JenÅ¯fa, as passive as Laca is aggressive, trades only in forgiveness and acceptance.
While the dormant nature of JenÅ¯fa – captured with skill, if not magnetism, by Laura Wilde in her ENO debut – is perhaps not the most rabble-rousing aspect of this evening, Alden’s decision to bring this turn of the century opera into post Soviet Europe adds definite crunch to the tale of a society in transition. In a way more powerful than the passing of a woman from one horny brother to another, this is an opera about a dysfunctional family in its entirety. Robbed of the chance to bring up a baby born out of wedlock, JenÅ¯fa faces either a future that her ancestors have coloured with shame, or a new beginning under her own new rules.
Charles Edwards’s set does wonders to pitch this stumbling family at a point of cultural hiatus – locating the story under the flashing lights of a factory, before locking our titular character within the peeling wallpaper of a low cost, USSR-issue home. The vanishing point at the centre of the public space becomes a corner in the domestic scene, but from within this claustrophobic setting, Alden gives his performers a volume that works at odds with the nature of their surroundings. Michaela Martens, in particular, presents an amplified performance as JenÅ¯fa’s stepmother, KostelniÄka. Throughout, this manipulative character’s elegantly polished pleas for decency and caution in love are laced with subtle moments of more naturalistic expression, yet Martens never severs the grace and technique of her performance. Below a Virgin Mary figurine that mocks the social reality of a premarital pregnancy, KostelniÄka engineers destruction and protection in equal measures in the confined environment she sculpts for her ward.
But it’s Nicky Spence’s sleazy Å teva who wields the sexed-up thrust of this night, as he discards disfigured JenÅ¯fa in favour of a newer, ditzier bird. In this opera, JanÃ¡Äek painted a community in transition, and this production locates Å teva riding his motorbike right into a booze-fuelled and sexually-charged future. Swimming in a sea of legs, scarves, fishnets and backcombed hair, Å teva escapes into a heady community that, even at the beginning, sensibly-clothed JenÅ¯fa has already left. With his drunken raspberries, flirty glances at the audience, and a wide armed bravado that amps up the folk dance incorporated by members of the chorus, Å teva is the bridge between the old and the new, the family and the community, the King of Kings and the King of Vegas, the dive bar and the daddy issues, the marital bed and the brothel – and with all of that, he’s got my vote.
JenÅ¯fa is on until 8th July 2016. Click here for more information.