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Strengths and weaknesses

REX HARLEY listens to
'Jenufa' at Welsh National Opera


It's four and a half years since Welsh National Opera first put on this production of Jenufa. Then it was sung in Czech and conducted by Daniel Harding; now we have Sir Charles Mackerras, and an English translation. Does this make for an evening that is better, worse or just different? Opinions will vary, but I know where I stand, and why.

Firstly, the decision to change language. Charles Mackerras is on record as saying, firstly, that Janácek's genius 'lies in his feeling for the rhythms and inflections of the Czech language,' but, secondly, that he will not perform Janácek in the original language unless the singers are fluent in Czech. In other words, Welsh and English audiences will have to make do with a reduced version of Janácek's genius.

So what happens when we hear Jenufa in English? Barely a minute after the curtain fell on act one, I heard one member of the audience say : 'Why on earth are they doing it in English? You can't hear half of what they're singing.' As, indeed, you couldn't. It's frankly ridiculous to suggest that, even with perfect articulation and diction, the singers' words will all be intelligible. In duos, trios and quartets, they're usually delivering entirely different words from each other anyway; and even when the chorus is singing in unison, many of the words go missing.

The sound balance, of course, also needs to be perfect. Asked about this in the programme interview, Mackerras says this is possible 'if you are careful with the orchestra. I always mark the parts very carefully, so that they play softly enough to hear the diction of the singers.' The orchestra sounded fantastic in this performance, and Mackerras's overview of the orchestral score, its shape and architecture, was as masterful as one would expect, but there were times when the singers were swamped. This was particularly hard on Susan Chilcott, as Jenufa, who had not even had the benefit of a dress rehearsal. A bronchial infection had thrust her understudy briefly into the limelight, and it was a wonder she performed at all, let alone as well as she did.

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Copyright © 16 March 2003 Rex Harley, Cardiff, UK


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