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REVIEW: Jenůfa at Longborough Festival Opera

Warwickshire's great mezzo-soprano, Gaynor Keeble
Warwickshire's great mezzo-soprano, Gaynor Keeble

Preston Witts reviews Jenůfa at Longborough Festival Opera, Saturday, 16th July

The West Midland's great mezzo-soprano, Gaynor Keeble, is renowned for being an actress-singer. In Longborough Festival Opera’s production of Leos Janacek’s Jenůfa she combines these twin talents to such stunning effect that you’re left reeling from the impact of it.

With the brilliance of her acting and the power of her voice she portrays the part of the baby killer, Kostelnicka Buryjovna with magnificent menace, while at the same time capturing the subtlety of a role which has ambivalence at the heart of it. Was she really that evil — or just homicidally wrong-headed with other people’s interests in mind?

The part of Kostelnicka needs to be performed by a larger-than-life woman and Ms Keeble fits the bill so convincingly that you feel the character could have been created especially for her.

She carries the burden of her shocking crime with such realism that you can almost physically share her anguish. Her performance is one of epic proportions and would receive rapturous applause at the most famous opera houses in the world.

A few years ago the distinguished actor David Warner told me he had a problem with opera because, although the performers could obviously sing, they weren’t very good at the acting side of the job. And opera is, after all, musical theatre. Gaynor Keeble demolishes that argument with crushing conclusiveness.

But in waxing lyrical about Ms Keeble, one must not forget the glorious Lee Bisset, the Scottish soprano who plays the title role of Jenůfa, the mother of the baby boy who is murdered by Kostelnicka.

Ms Bisset has a wonderful voice, and her portrayal of the tragic central figure of this opera is as compelling in its innocence as Ms Keeble’s is in malevolence.

What is also tremendous is the highly original music of Janacek (1854-1928), which in its seamlessness is an interesting forerunner of the 20th century New York minimalists John Adams, Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

Jenůfa was first performed in 1904 in Brno, Moravia. Its first audiences would have understood the tragic folk tale it was telling, but what would they have made of the music? It still sounds ‘modern’ well over 100 years after its first performance, so what would it have sounded like in 1904?

Janacek’s music has experienced considerably increased exposure over the past two or three decades, not least because of the championing of it — and indeed the works of other Czech composers — by the great conductor and musicologist Sir Charles Mackerras.

The late Sir Charles is among some of the eminent conductors with whom Ms Keeble has worked during her busy and varied career. Has some of his greatness — particularly with Janacek — rubbed off on her?

About Gaynor Keeble

GAYNOR Keeble, pictured, has stuck firmly to her West Midlands/Warwickshire roots. She was born and brought up in Balsall Common, went to the University of Warwick, and now lives at Hampton-in-Arden. She is well-known throughout the Midlands and has sung major roles with Welsh National Opera, English Touring Opera, English National Opera, Opera North, Kentish Opera and European Chamber Opera. One of the highlights of her career a few years ago was when she played one of the Three Ladies in Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. She’s also worked with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), as well as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Philharmonia Orchestra, the London Mozart Players, the London Bach Orchestra and the Northern Sinfonia.

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