Moments of Truth

Classic Arts Features   Moments of Truth
Dallas Opera music director Graeme Jenkins looks at the history of Janšcek's Jenufa, which he conducts this month.

Planning your next trip to Europe? Already had your fill of London, Paris, Madrid, Berlin, Dresden, Florence, even Prague? Perhaps a detour is in order, a visit to the Czech Republic's other great music capital: the city of Brno.

The first time I conducted Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, it was with the combined choral and orchestral forces in Leos Janácek's hometown of Brno. When not engaged in rehearsals and performances or simply behaving like a tourist, gawking at the beauty of Brno's many neglected and historic churches, I managed to gain access to the renowned organ school where, for so many years of his life, Janácek devoted himself to teaching the next generation of Czech musicians, in relative, provincial obscurity.

It was not until the composer reached his 60s that he attracted international notice and belated fame through an extraordinary succession of great operas: Katya Kabanova, The Makropulos Case, The Cunning Little Vixen, and finally, From the House of the Dead. (The last of these works I will be conducting next summer as part of the Janácek Festival at Berlin's Deutsche Oper.)

Why did it take so long for this brilliant, eccentric, retiring man to gain the recognition he so richly deserves? And why are these operas still perceived as so utterly extraordinary? Dramatic truth and brevity are the keys.

To begin to understand Janácek's unique contribution to music, we must accept that, much like the great visual artists of the 20th century, this composer pares things down to the bare essentials: secondary characters are cut, and the principals sing only what is crucial to the progression of the drama. Rarely does a Janácek opera last more than 100 minutes, but unlike almost any other composer I can think of, his works don't need to go on any longer‹due to Janácek's uncanny ability to give us, in near-record time, fully drawn, multidimensional characters facing complex situations.

Many in Dallas have posed the question: "Why produce an opera in a language so few of us can comprehend?" It's because, ultimately, Leos Janácek is speaking to us in the universal language of the human heart. In 1915, the composer expressed it this way:

"At the time of writing Jenufa, I became absorbed in the question of the melodic curves and contours of speech. Not according to the example of my famous forerunners, but by listening to the speech of passersby. I read the expressions in their faces and in their eyes. I roamed through the backstreets and observed the surroundings of the speakers; their type of society, time, light, dusk, cold, and warmth. The variety of this word-music is boundless. I was also able to feel something far deeper than the mere melody of the speech, something which had remained hidden. I felt that the word-melodies were traces of hidden currents within the self. I was afforded great pleasure by the beauty of the phrases. I could see further into the depths of the soul of a person if I listened to the melodic curves and contours of his speech."

Like Wagner, an understanding of Janácek's music is only truly possible when the delineation of the vocal writing and the corresponding response from the orchestra are heard together as a single thought. The very sound of the language is mirrored, exactly, in the curt phrases in the accompaniment. Listen carefully as the chorus screams out, "Jesus Christe!" as the murder is uncovered. Notice that the orchestra replies with the same material.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

In 1892, Janácek saw the play Jerì pastorkyn'a (Her Stepdaughter) by Gabriela Preissová in Brno. Once the rights were obtained, Jenufa was composed chiefly between 1895 and 1897, completed in 1903, first performed in the National Theater in Brno on January 21, 1904, then revised by the composer in 1908. It would be another eight long years before Janácek's opera reached the stage of the National Theater in Prague in May 1916.

In order to understand this delay, I must take you offstage and behind the scenes. The most important man in Czech Opera at the turn of the last century was a gentleman by the name of Karel Kovarovic, Director of the National Opera from 1900 until his death in 1920. Back in 1887, Janácek, a then-youthful music critic, had written off a comic opera, The Bridegrooms by Kovarovic, by asking, "Can you remember any tunes from this comic-opera?" Referring to "this so-called music, filled with menacing obscurities, desperate screams, and dagger stabs," Janácek then stated that Kovarovic's overture "with its instability of key sense and wavering harmony gave proof of the composer's genius‹to induce deafness."

Amusing words at the time, but it meant the doors of the Czech National Opera would be closed to Janácek for much of his working career. Jenufa was performed, in the composer's 63rd year, with cuts and alterations decreed by Kovarovic. These changes not only had a significant impact on Janácek's complicated orchestrations, they entitled the vengeful impresario to a percentage of the royalties, a percentage Kovarovic's widow continued to collect after his death.

For this Dallas Opera production, we have done painstaking work to present the composer's original intentions in the groundbreaking edition prepared by Sir Charles Mackerras and Dr. John Tyrell. The most important of the restored music concerns the aria in Act One sung by the Kostelnicka, Jenu°fa's stepmother. In Dr. Tyrell's words:

"The word Kostelnicka means the honorary office at the local chapel, where she serves as sacristan. She is a woman of little means, but immense moral authority. She orders Jenufato wait a year before marrying Steva, during which time he must not get drunk. She then explains her reasons. She had married Jenu°fa's widowed father, the attractive brother of the miller. Her husband soon squandered their wealth and died, leaving her to bring up his young daughter. Kostelnicka sees Jenufamaking the same mistakes as herself."

She completes her aria with the words "ze ja nedovolim, abyste se prv sebrali." That is, "I will not permit you to marry early." Give half an ear to the tough, defiant string tone which Janácek marks to be played energico. The moral strength of the stepmother is beyond questioning‹she will be obeyed. It is true that the aria holds up the dramatic action, but it also makes the stepmother's character much more rounded and well-defined so that, later, when she kills Jenu°fa's baby, her fall from grace comes as a profoundly shocking blow.

The death of a child is perhaps the most dire tragedy any parent can face. Janácek's own son died at an early age, and his daughter Olga lived through this opera's composition, only to pass away as the composer was completing the music. The opera is dedicated to Olga in words that reveal the depth of Janácek's unconsolable anguish:

"I would bind Jenufawith the black ribbon of the long illness, the pain, and the sighing of my daughter Olga and my little boy Vladimir."

Yet the pain, too, becomes part of the creative process.

Janácek's genius lies in his completely original ideas about music drawn, not just from the imagination, but from the most commonplace experiences in life. One can detect his unique voice after hearing just a couple of measures. A perfect illustration can be found in the preparations for the wedding in Act Three of Jenufa.

The village girls sing an optimistic refrain accompanied by chirping oboes. It has a wonderfully lilting Moravian quality, and, in the wake of all the pain and angst of Act Two, it is a welcome and joyous interlude! Indeed, Jenu°fa's life seems to have turned a corner at last. As Grandmother Buryja pronounces her blessing over Jenufa and Steva, we find ourselves seduced by the orchestral pallette with its muted strings, soft flute, and wafting harp; yet underneath, we can detect the presence of muted horns which, in this idyllic setting, add a prescient note of warning.

Suddenly, an offstage voice is heard‹the dead baby's body has been discovered in the melting ice. The moment the Kostelnicka dreaded has come to pass and her unthinkable crime has been discovered. All the angst from the pit, the strange repeated rhythms, the brass off-beats are manifestations of the stepmother's guilt-wracked soul. Finally, even the jagged violas are silenced and the Kostelnicka declaims: "To muj skutek, muj trest bozi!" (It was my deed, my punishment).

We hold our collective breath, waiting to see how the characters will react. Wondering whether we, ourselves, should pardon or condemn this terrible and tragic deed. It is at this moment of our indecision that Janácek reveals the clarity of his moral vision: Jenu°fa, who, in the short time we've known her, has been seduced, abandoned, disgraced, disfigured, and suffered the loss of her first and only child, finds within herself, at that shattering moment of truth, the ability to forgive.

She, who has received no pity, reaches out to her stepmother with a heart overflowing with compassion. She, who has been so severely judged, will render no judgment. Jenufa realizes that her stepmother killed the child in a misguided attempt to give the stepdaughter a last chance for happiness. And her final words to the Kostelnicka, "Pahbuh vas potes" (God give you comfort), in a good performance, leave us overwhelmed.

If there is a dry eye in the house at the end of the evening, my colleagues and I have failed the composer miserably.

The radiance of C-major bathes the Kostelnicka as she is led away to face trial. Left alone, Jenufaoffers Laca a way out. His steadfastness convinces Jenu°fa, at last, of the depth of his love for her. In it, they will find the strength to endure. The composer leaves us with great soaring phrases from the woodwinds and trumpets, punctuated by majestic interjections from the lower brass. The orchestra is attempting to make us understand that getting on with life can be an act of heroism, as well as hope.

Following the belated premiere of Jenufa in Prague in 1916, the great composer and conductor Otkar Ostrcil wrote to Janácek:

"Your Jenufa made a huge impression on me. Seldom have I left the theater so taken by a work as on Friday's premiere. You know how to keep the listener as if in a vice for the whole evening. On Friday, at least, I went from the theater with the impression that I would not be able in the immediate future to expose myself again to such an overwhelming experience…. Accept from me, Maestro, my sincere congratulations."

Ostrcil would go on to conduct the next four premieres of Janácek's work in Prague.

The success of Jenufa in Prague would lead to subsequent performances in Berlin and throughout the world. What an extraordinary operatic year was 1904! Not only the premiere of Jenufa but Puccini's Madama Butterfly. For that, we will have to wait until the end of our current season, which celebrates the great divas in Opera. I trust I will see you there.

Graeme Jenkins is music director of The Dallas Opera.

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