Ties That Bind

Classic Arts Features   Ties That Bind
David Shengold explores Janšcek's transcendent Jenufa.

The story of Janácek's opera Jenufa‹as of its heroine‹is one of overcoming incredible obstacles and suffering before attaining a happy ending. The composer, born in rural obscurity, was 41 when he started it; its composition was deeply intertwined with the tragic death of both of his beloved children; he was 49 before it premiered and due to nasty musical politics had to wait another dozen years (and endure an enemy's tampering with the score) until it reached the leading Czech stage, Prague's National Theatre.

Thanks in part to the superstar Czech diva Maria Jeritza, Janácek lived to witness Jenufa at the Vienna Hofoper in 1918 and to read of its 1924 U.S. premiere at the Met. That both took place in German occasioned some regret to a staunch Czech patriot and avid student of the Czech speech rhythm who would not even enter the German-language opera house‹or use the German-owned trolley‹of his adopted city of Brno. Still, as a septuagenarian, the composer had seen Jenufa through, and gone on to create several other distinguished operatic works. Yet even he could scarcely have suspected that by the end of the 20th century Jenufa would be regularly given at every major world theatre and viewed as one of opera's supreme masterpieces: not only for its surging and unforgettable music, but for a plot which‹rare for the art form‹involves real moral and spiritual growth. In itself, and in the story of its journey to the stage, Jenufa represents (though art film trailers have debased the term) a triumph of the human spirit.

As the Metropolitan Opera opens its third new production of the work (for seven performances January 13-February 13), it's worth considering what lends Jenufa its special qualities.

In terms of the Czech operatic tradition‹intimately linked with building the consciousness and linguistic culture for a nation-state independent from the Austro-Hungarian Empire‹Janácek's work of 1904 entered history as the first opera with a prose libretto. But the provenance of that libretto is also key. Jenufa's odyssey begins with the play Její Pastorkyná (Her Stepdaughter) by the progressive Czech journalist, author and feminist Gabriela Preissová (1862-1946). The drama premiered in Prague November 9, 1890, and caused a minor uproar, attacked as a calumny on Moravian village life, which many Czech Romantic writers had sentimentalized and idealized in the intensely nationalistic literary movement that held sway through the second part of the century. Preissová, who had spent nine years living in the Moravian/Slovakian borderlands where it is set, claimed‹as Leoncavallo would of Pagliacci two years later‹that it had its basis in actual tragic incidents in village life.

For their part, the Prague intellectuals favoring Realism, who took a favorable view toward such writers as Émile Zola and Henrik Ibsen (for Hedda Gabler is an exact contemporary of Preissová's Stepdaughter), drew back from the Christian underpinnings of Preissová's play‹hardly an unrealistic element, given the depth and strictness of Catholic faith in Moravia‹and its redemptive ending.

The production of Her Stepdaughter marked one of the first times authentic village buildings, costumes and customs were displayed on the Czech stage‹something notably absent from the first few decades' stagings of Smetana's "originary" nationalist opera, the 1866 Bartered Bride. (Let me propose in passing what few if any commentators seem to note: that Jenufa ‹ with its clever village heroine endangered by parental opposition to her marriage caught between contrasted semi-fraternal tenors riven by disinheritance‹reinscribes tragically the plot of Smetana's comedy.)

The quest for stage realism accompanied a surge in interest in ethnological study of folkways, including several collections of Moravian folksongs. The bridal chorus in Act III Preissová found in one such collection; the words of the songs sung by the army conscripts in Act I Janácek added to the play from another.

It is not surprising that Janácek took an interest in Preissová's play. His second (and first contemporarily set) opera, the one-act comedy The Story of a Romance (1894) had been based on a Preissová story about Moravian village life. The two constituent parts of the Czech lands, Bohemia (centered in Prague) and Moravia have been joined culturally and politically since the 11th century. Janácek was born in the small village of Hukvaldy (Hochwald) in northern Moravia to a family of teachers (significantly, in light of Jenufa's role in promoting village literacy). He lived most of his adult life (and premiered most of his operas) in the Moravian capital, Brno (Brünn).

The composer adapted the play by cutting extensively, compressing and in places repeating (for rhythmic purposes) Preissová's lines of dialogue. But (except for those brief added songs), the "verbal material" in Jenufa derives from Preissová, another way in which the work differs from most of the vast corpus of operatic works. Bearing in mind Mira Mendelson's co-adaptation with Prokofiev of Tolstoy's War and Peace (and going back decades), the only opera besides Jenufa in the Met repertory set to words originally by a woman is the Ravel/Colette L'Enfant et les Sortilèges.

Singularly, female librettists were notably common almost from the inception of the Czech operatic tradition. The poet and librettist Eliska Krásnohorská (1847-1926) wrote the libretti for Smetana's three last operas: The Kiss, The Secret and The Devil's Wall. Among the many Czech composers that competed for Smetana's legacy, she also supplied texts for Karel Bendl (1838-97) and Zdenek Fibich (1850-1900). Fibich also set four libretti by his lover Anezka Schulzová (1868-1905). Two of Dvorák's best operas (Dimitrij and The Jacobin) are to texts by Marie Cervinková-Riegrová (1854-95), who also wrote for Karel Sebor (1843-1903). Another scandal-garnering Preissová play, The Innkeeper's Maid, became the successful 1899 opera Eva by Josef Foerster (1859-1951). After Janácek's two Preissová-based operas, he asked the Brno writer Fedora Bartosova (1884-1941), a friend of his late daughter Olga, for the libretto to his next project, Osud (Fate), completed in 1906 but unstaged until 1958. As scholar-musician Jenny Kallick has noted, "The instinct to inscribe a woman's perspective and permit a woman's self-narration would … emerge as a hallmark of Janácek's operatic style." Female characters are squarely at the center of many of his remaining operas, including Káta Kabanová (1921), The Cunning Little Vixen (1924) and The Makropulos Case (1926).

Like The Cunning Little Vixen (in the original Vixen Sharp-ears), Jenufa owes its title outside Czech boundaries to the keen marketing sense of that extraordinary cultural figure Max Brod (1884-1968), who propagandized for Brno's Janácek as tirelessly as he did for Prague's Kafka. The Czech name of both play and opera is Her Stepdaughter so both leading women are mentioned and it remains an open question whether Jenufa or Kostelnicka is the dominant part.

John Tyrrell observes in his magisterial Czech Opera:

"Jenufa … appears to follow the Krásnohorská-Smetana pattern based on love developing between a central couple and ultimately fulfilled through their spiritual growth. From the passionate and impulsive girl in Act I to the wise, reconciled woman in Act III, Jenufa's growth is charted in her relationship with Laca: from dislike to an awareness of his qualities and, finally, love. But Jenufa's growth is also revealed in her relationship with her foster-mother, the Kostelnicka. By the end of Act III she is able to comprehend what it cost her foster-mother to make her terrible confession, and can forgive and accept her. It is this relationship, rather than that with Laca, which is celebrated in the opera's Czech title."

This insight points toward another distinguishing aspect of Jenufa: its near uniqueness in the operatic canon in centering emotionally on a bond between mother and daughter figures. Opera is rich in highly charged father/daughter and mother/son pairings (Rigoletto and Il Trovatore being classic examples), and from Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria through Guillaume Tell to Boris Godunov there is father/son bonding aplenty. But it is exceedingly rare for an opera to delineate and stress a mother/daughter relationship as of paramount importance. Strauss and Hofmannsthal's Elektra (five years younger than Jenufa) comes to mind as an inverse example, where hatred between a mother and daughter fuels the plot. Ironically, Jenufa's only counterpart in mother-daughter cathexis may be Elektra's distant precursor Iphigénie en Aulide; and Gluck's noble 1774 score is not exactly central to the repertory.

None of Jenufa's principal characters has an extant father. The only two paternal figures in the work are Steva, who won't even look at (let alone acknowledge) his child by Jenufa, and the pompous, judgmental Mayor, whose giddy daughter Karolka (for whom Steva opportunistically throws over Jenufa), turns to her equally judgmental mother when knowledge of that child's parentage and death comes to light. In contrast, the opera's central family has three generations of mothers (Grandmother Buryja, the Kostelnicka and Jenufa) who at crucial junctures protect one another, though none of them are actual blood relations. Of these, the only one we see with her actual child is Jenufa: the grandmother's sons (Jenufa and Steva's fathers) are dead, and the Kostelnicka, pointedly, has never given birth. This places her outside traditional categories, and as does her having assumed the (canonically masculine) religious duties of the late local Sacristan. Finally, for all her virtue and industry, the childless woman is (as frequently in traditional narratives) figured as deficient in "natural" human feeling.

In the play's first act the Mill Foreman discusses how Steva's uncle (Jenufa's father) abused his second wife, the then young Kostelnicka, making clear that such events were public knowledge in the village's close confines. The composer cut this from the libretto, but did set to music a related passage which some contemporary stagings restore: the Kostelnicka's Act I aria "Aji on byl zlatohrivy" ("He too had golden hair"). This grief-laden interior monologue ‹ surely, given the references to the beauty of her husband's body and the nights she had to sleep in the fields due to his beatings, this speech is not meant for the ears of the assembled crowd‹holds up the action at a key juncture. It seems to have been cut before the 1904 Brno premiere, and Janácek himself certainly removed it from the score in 1908. What the aria compromises in dramatic flow it fills out in "back story," reinforcing the rationale for the older woman's decision to postpone Jenufa's marriage for a year and fleshing out the reason for her unyielding hatred of the very sight not only of Steva but of his namesake, lookalike child by Jenufa. The Kostelnicka‹a deeply religious and upstanding woman‹takes on (with her awful crime of killing the child) the threat not only of exposure but of eternal damnation, all out of concern that Jenufa's future be happy (and Steva-free). In her brave and riveting final confession, she is able to admit that her own pride played a role, but she cares as much about Jenufa's forgiveness as she does for her Savior's.

By contrast, positive maternal (and specifically Marian) associations adhere to Jenufa throughout the opera. In her very first speech (the opera's first vocal "moment") she prays to the Virgin to save Steva from the draft so they can marry and legitimize her unborn child. And from the beginning of the staggeringly taut second act, in which the two women are cooped up tightly in enforced domesticity, Jenufa is musically bathed in an aura of motherhood, which lends a calm glow to many of her utterances that contrasts with her stepmother's jaggedly pronounced wishes for the child to die. Jenufa's maternal lyricism culminates in the heartbreaking, shimmering prayer to Mary's image for the missing Stevushka's well-being. From the subsequent news of his death, she voices (and her music confirms) a void which is only filled in the opera's exultant final moments as she realizes the depth of Laca's love.

After the opera's eventual success, Gabriela Preissová made some changes in her play to bring it closer to Janácek's revisions. Finally, in 1930 she turned the story line into a novel, expanding the time frame of events in both directions. She includes the trial of the Kostelnicka, with whose forthrightness about her actions the jury sympathizes: she is sentenced to two years in prison. Jenufa and Laca visit her there and upon her release move with her to another town where nobody knows them‹finally escaping the accusing gazes of the village of which the older woman voices fear in Act II. In the novel Laca and Jenufa eventually have a baby of their own; poignantly, news of her stepdaughter's pregnancy seems to make the Kostelnicka shudder at the recollection of her desperate deed, and she does not live to see the happy event.

Fortunately, Janácek lived to see his first masterwork, which occasioned him so much effort and sorrow, take life beyond the bounds of his chosen community. And the world's opera houses are the richer for it. A nonpareil work in so many ways, Jenufa, proclaiming that true love begins in forgiveness, offers audiences a shattering but transcendent journey.

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