The first thing you see when you enter the Coliseum for the English National Opera’s revival of Leos Janacek’s Jenufa is a black curtain drawn across the stage. It could not be more appropriate, for this is a work with darkness at its heart.

Janacek wrote the piece over a prolonged period during which he made many revisions to his score. And, just as is the play on which it is based, Her Stepdaughter, this was an early venture into 20th century realism for the composer. Janacek had himself been influenced by the verismo movement and impressed by Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, but it was a bold choice nonetheless – Gabriela Preissova’s play had not been well received in 1890’s Prague.

Its subject matter – a woman having a child out of wedlock – was seen at the time quite simply as brutal and immoral. Nevertheless, from such inauspicious beginnings, Janacek created a powerful work of great psychological depth and strong musical themes that embraced both his interest in folk music (as seen in the Act I drunken party) and the big set piece solos for Jenufa and the Kostelnicka in Act II.

The plot is rife with dysfunctional families. Originally set in rural Moravia in the early 1900s, David Alden’s production has updated the action to the middle of the century and a dreary Soviet setting, all broken windows and flickering electrics. Jenufa has been brought up singlehandedly by the Kostelnicka, her stepmother, and is betrothed to Steva. She is already pregnant and desperate to marry before anyone else realises this, especially her stepmother who is known as a moral pillar of the community and would be horrified by this besmirching of the family’s honour.

John Findon as Steva and the cast of Jenufa at the ENO

When Steva turns up drunk (on a motorbike) and proceeds to boast about his popularity with the local girls, the Kostelnicka forbids the marriage to go ahead until Steva has been sober for a year. This is clearly a disaster for Jenufa and in the strained aftermath of the party, Steva’s half-brother Laca (also, it seems, in love with Jenufa) slashes her cheek with a knife.

From here, things only get worse. Jenufa has the baby in secret (and out of wedlock) and her stepmother sends for Steva demanding he marry the girl – but Steva has lost interest and is now intending to marry the daughter of the mayor. Laca steps in with his own offer of marriage but, upset on hearing about the baby, the Kostelnicka lies to him, saying the baby is dead. Having given Jenufa a sleeping draught, she takes the baby to the icy river and its fate.

Jennifer Davis, as Jenufa has a soaring silver-toned soprano and plenty of convincing dramatic heft. As her two suitors, Richard Trey Smagur (Laca) and John Findon (Steva) are curiously similar and so make convincing brothers, while Susan Bullock is a formidable Kostelnicka. Fiona Kimm is an excellently idiosyncratic Grandmother Buryja. Keri-Lynn Wilson is in the pit and brings out all the drama of the music, though perhaps at times a bit too forcefully overwhelming the voices on stage. Violence, shame, infanticide – this is an opera to put you through the wringer though it does, against the odds, reach a satisfactory resolution in the end.

Jenufa runs at the Coliseum until 27th March. For more information, and for tickets, please visit

Photos © Ellie Kurttz