Jenůfa, Opera by Leoš Janáček
Jenůfa, Leoš Janáček’s unremitting essay on jealousy and reputation, was the composer’s third opera and the work that introduced his highly original style of writing to the rest of the world. It was not, however, an immediate success. Premiered at the National Theatre in Brno on 21 January 1904, audiences in Prague had to wait until 1916, after many changes to the score, to hear Jenůfa for the first time.
Based on Gabriela Preissová’s play, Její pastorkyňa (Her Stepdaughter), Janáček’s eponymous heroine, Jenůfa, is caught up in a love triangle in which there is precious little romance. Unaware that she is carrying his child, Števa treats Jenůfa with borderline contempt. Laca, infuriated by Števa’s nonchalance, and Jenůfa’s lack of interest in him, cuts her cheek with a knife, convinced that by disfiguring her, Števa will reject her completely. Meanwhile, Kostelnička, fearing the shame that her stepdaughter’s situation will bring to her village, comes up with a brutal solution.
Less than a month separates the premieres of Jenůfa and Giacomo Puccini’s verismo masterpiece, Madama Butterfly. At first sight, the two operas are seemingly very different, but the vastly contrasting milieus they inhabit disguise what they have in common: characters who lack compassion holding up a mirror to humanity’s capacity for cruelty.
Janáček was so determined to ensure Jenůfa’s realism that he dedicated years of study to incorporate the natural cadence of the Czech language into its music. The work was also influenced by a personal tragedy: the death of his daughter Olga, who passed away during the period of its composition. Jenůfa, ultimately an opera about a young woman’s suffering, was one into which Janáček poured his very heart and soul.
Companies today have largely discarded the revisions that Karel Kovařovic made to Jenůfa to bring it to the Bohemian capital, preferring Janáček’s original conception. It is this definitive version of Jenůfa that will be performed at the Národní divadlo, Prague’s National Theatre. What were seen as eccentricities - the shortness of the melodies and the repetition of musical themes - are now prized as key elements in creating a mood that perfectly matches Jenůfa’s narrative.