Arcola Theatre, London E8
Opened 19 October, 2007

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. I wonder whether she would have done so in the absence of a commission. The result is limber and atmospheric, but even though this is the British première of the play that sired Janáček'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 misfortunate 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: those who are certain they are right have no need to display it for confirmation. 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 pre-ordained vision. This is a mixed blessing. The wave of arrivals from the eastern European A8 nations into Britain may not yet be making their presence felt in artistic terms, but the vocal harmonic forms of the region 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.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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