Jenufa - Leoš Janáček
Today we conclude our time with this months composer and look at one of Janacek’s most celebrated pieces; Jenufa.
At A Glance
“Jenůfa” (sometimes spelled “Jenufa” or “Jenuška”) is a Czech-language opera in three acts written by the renowned Czech composer Leoš Janáček. The opera's full title is “Její pastorkyňa,” which translates to “Her Stepdaughter” in English. It is considered one of Janáček's most significant works and is highly regarded in the operatic repertoire.
The libretto of “Jenůfa” was also written by Leoš Janáček, based on the play “Její pastorkyňa” by Gabriela Preissová. The opera was first performed on January 21, 1904, in Brno, Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic), and it was later revised in 1908.
The story is set in a rural village and revolves around the central character, Jenůfa, a young woman who becomes pregnant out of wedlock. The opera explores themes of love, sacrifice, societal expectations, and redemption. It delves into the complexities of human relationships and the consequences of one's actions.
Without giving away too many spoilers, “Jenůfa” is a powerful and emotionally charged opera with a tragic storyline. The music is characterised by Janáček's unique and distinctive style, using speech melodies and folk elements to express the inner emotions of the characters.
The opera opens in a small rural village, and we meet the central character, Jenůfa. She is in love with Števa, a handsome but irresponsible young man. However, Števa's half-brother, Laca, is also in love with Jenůfa. Laca is a shy and insecure man, bearing a facial scar given to him by Števa in a fit of jealousy. Despite her love for Števa, Jenůfa's stepmother, the Kostelnička (the sexton's wife), disapproves of their relationship due to Števa's reckless behavior and lack of responsibility.
Jenůfa becomes pregnant by Števa, which leads to a scandal in the village. Laca, who still loves Jenůfa, offers to marry her and take responsibility for the child, despite the fact that the child is not his. The Kostelnička, seeing this as a chance for Jenůfa to have a stable life, pressures her to accept Laca's proposal.
Time passes, and Jenůfa and Laca are now married. Jenůfa has given birth to a son, but Števa's child is nowhere to be seen. The villagers believe that the Kostelnička got rid of the illegitimate child to save Jenůfa's reputation.
Jenůfa is overjoyed with her son, but Laca is still struggling to fully open his heart to the child. The Kostelnička is burdened by guilt and feels responsible for the missing child. In a desperate attempt to protect her stepdaughter's future, she takes a devastating and fateful decision.
In the final act, we discover the horrifying truth. The Kostelnička, unable to bear the shame of Jenůfa's illegitimate child, drowned the baby in the river. She confesses this to Jenůfa, who is horrified and heartbroken.
Jenůfa's response to this revelation is one of compassion and forgiveness, showing her inner strength and goodness. She refuses to let the Kostelnička take the blame for the act, protecting her stepmother from the consequences.
Laca, witnessing Jenůfa's selflessness, realises the depth of her love and grows to love her even more. The opera ends on a note of redemption and hope, as the characters grapple with their past actions and strive to find a path towards forgiveness and healing.
Jenůfa (soprano): The protagonist of the opera. She is a kind and gentle young woman who faces the consequences of her love for Števa and demonstrates strength and forgiveness throughout the story.
Kostelnička (mezzo-soprano): Jenůfa's stern and authoritarian stepmother. She is driven by a desire to protect Jenůfa's future and reputation, leading her to commit a tragic act that haunts her.
Laca (tenor): Števa's half-brother and Jenůfa's eventual husband. He starts as a jealous and insecure man but evolves into a more loving and understanding character as the story unfolds.
Števa (tenor): Jenůfa's first love interest. He is irresponsible and lacks the maturity needed to be a good partner or father.
“Jenůfa” is considered a masterpiece of Czech opera and has been performed internationally to critical acclaim. It remains an important part of the standard opera repertoire, cherished for its poignant storytelling and exceptional musical composition. The opera's emotional intensity and exploration of human relationships make it a profound and moving experience for both performers and audiences alike. Watch the full opera here.