Operas are famous for their ability to arouse deep emotions in the viewers. Love, betrayal, vengeance, death and glory sweep in and out of stories which often have very little plot-line, or very unconvincing plots, and yet don’t seem to suffer from the lack. Jenufa is different. Influenced originally by the verismo movement in Italian 19th century opera, Janacek strives for and succeeds in bringing to the stage the drama of grand opera with a very realistic story of love and despair.

The setting is a small town where culture and education is far less important than the strict teaching of the Catholic Church. There is a grandmother, Burya, a little old lady who works harder than anyone, but still has the capacity to love, She is sung by Fiona Kimm who plays and sings her with a brilliant mix of extreme ageing with super vitality. We are on her side. On the other side is brutal daughter-in-law, Kostelnicka, who is dominant in the household and on the stage in her reliance on the appearance of virtue. This is not easy because Grandmother Burya’s stepson, Laca, has a half-brother, Steva, who is a charming tearaway determined to seduce any pretty girl - which includes Kostelnicka’s stepdaughter, Jenufa. Furthermore Steva, deeply, and with honourable intentions,is in love with Jenufa.

In the first two acts, these three, young and passionate, dominate the action. Jenufa is sung by Irish soprano, Jennifer Davis, who opens the production confessing to us the terrible sin that she and Luca have committed, leaving her pregnant. Davis with a purity and strength of voice, manages to be entirely believable. Marriage is her only hope. John Finden plays her seducer, again with one of those strong tenors that go with a perfect lack of sensitivity and a total self-centredness. Luca is sung by American tenor, Richard Trey Samgur who acts in an uncool, slightly retarded, desperately in love way that makes it clear that Jenufa will never look in his direction. Unless the world order changes.

In Act Three that is exactly what happens. Kostelnicka takes over. Susan Bullock brings her ‘formidable focus and power’ (in the accurate words of The Financial Times) to the fierce matriarch who will do anything to preserve the reputation of her family. Steva has not married Jenufa so Kostelnicka has locked Jenufa into the house until, eight days ago, the baby boy is born. Kostelnicka is a malevolent force, warped by her terror of admitting the truth. The baby will be happier with God, she decides, and takes him to the river to drown. She inserts him under the ice, assuming he will have decomposed before Spring. But No.

Spring comes, as it does, and Jenufa has finally submitted to marriage with Laca who knows nothing of the baby. The ice melts and the people find a baby boy… They bring him to the house. The Mayor and Mayor’s wife, guests at the wedding are scandalised. Jenufa agonised. She thought the baby had died naturally. This is one of the great moments of opera, Janacek’s extraordinary music capable of becoming foreground or background, always driving on the story. The people take the murderous matriarch away.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about the opera – based on the play, Jeji Pastorkyao by Gabriela Preissova – is that it resolves, after so much tragedy, into something near a happy ending. Virtue is, at least to some extent, rewarded. Director David Alden mirrors the drive and subtlety of the music with his staging which stays close to the characters at all times – not always easy in the ENO’s wide proscenium. Conductor, Keri-Lynn Wilson who is experienced with operatic works all over the world, brings even more edge to what is an intense and moving evening.

If I was looking for an opera to lure a young person away from too many musicals, I would point them in the direction of the ENO’s Jenufa.