Music by Leoš Janácˇek, adapted from
a play by Gabriela Preissová
World premiere Jan. 21, 1904,
National Theatre, Brno
Santa Fe Opera production conducted by
Johannes Debus, directed by David Alden
Original production created
by English National Opera
The Czech lands of Bohemia, Moravia, and Czech Silesia reached a pinnacle of cultural, intellectual, and political achievement in the 14th and 15th centuries. This “golden age” began under the rule of King Charles IV and continued until the lands were taken over by Austria’s Habsburg monarchy in 1526. The Austrians spent the next four centuries eradicating Czech culture. German replaced the Czech language, which was spoken only in remote areas.
A Czech “national revival” began in the early 1800s, sparking a return of the language, literature, and poetry. Theater and opera were seen as especially important in the revival. Bedrˇich Smetana, regarded as the father of Czech music, had to learn Czech in his 40s in order to write The Bartered Bride and other operas for Prague’s National Theatre, which opened in 1862. Fervently patriotic, Smetana cared little for recognition outside his homeland. Antonín Dvorˇák was the next great Czech composer, albeit one with a more international outlook and a fondness for “Germanic” forms like the symphony and string quartet. Czech independence was achieved in 1918 with the founding of Czechoslovakia.
Leoš Janácˇek, considered the greatest Czech composer of the 20th century, was born in 1854 in Hukvaldy, Moravia. He became a teacher-musician, like his father and grandfather, and served as head of the music program at a teachers’ school in Brno. He augmented his modest salary by teaching voice, conducting choral societies, founding an organ school, and publishing a music journal.
Two major influences on Janácˇek coalesced in the composition of Jenu˚fa. The first was Moravian folk music, with its wide variety of keys, emphasis on vocal music, and structures that follow text patterns. The second was his study of everyday speech melodies and rhythms, which he jotted down by the hundreds.
Janácˇek was 49 when Jenu˚fa premiered in Brno in 1904 and 61 at its 1916 debut in Prague, which launched his national fame. At about this time, he had a passionate (on his part) but apparently platonic relationship with Kamila Stösslová, a much younger married woman. In a remarkable burst of activity, Janácˇek wrote four great operas in seven years after turning 65. Stösslová inspired the female lead roles in three of them: Kát’a Kabanová (1921), The Cunning Little Vixen (1924), and The Makropulos Affair (1926). He composed many great works in other forms, including his Sinfonietta and the Glagolitic Mass. He died of pneumonia in 1928.
Jenu˚fa (Laura Wilde) is engaged to Števa (Richard Trey Smagur), the local mill owner and a notorious carouser. Kostelnicˇka (Patricia Racette), Jenu˚fa’s autocratic stepmother and guardian, declares publicly that they can’t wed until Števa remains sober for a year. Jenu˚fa is several months pregnant, and Števa starts to get cold feet. Laca (Alexander Lewis) also loves Jenu˚fa; in a jealous rage he cuts her cheek with a knife, knowing that Števa will refuse her now that her beauty is marred. Kostelnicˇka hides Jenu˚fa in a remote cottage, where she gives birth. Driven by fear, pride, and perhaps a form of love, the stepmother drowns the baby, telling Jenu˚fa he died from a sudden illness. The contrite Laca proposes to Jenu˚fa, and she accepts. In the springtime, as they are about to marry, the baby’s corpse is discovered, and Jenu˚fa is accused of murder. Kostelnicˇka confesses, and Jenu˚fa offers Laca the freedom to withdraw his pledge. He reiterates his love and they agree to wed.
Jenu˚fa premiered in Brno on Jan. 21, 1904. Local reviewers were enthusiastic — which is not entirely surprising, given that most were former students of the composer, as were audiences. Critics from Prague offered mixed opinions. Some were dismissive; the most favorable noted that its success was “all-pervading and increased from act to act.” The opera was revived in Brno over the next decade and toured to some smaller Moravian cities, but nowhere beyond.
Prague’s National Theatre waited 12 years to stage Jenu˚fa, due to impresario Karel Kovarˇovic’s intransigence. Janácˇek had mocked him relentlessly in a review years earlier, and the begrudging Kovarˇovic would only present Jenu˚fa on the condition that he be allowed to “improve” Janácˇek’s “faulty” orchestration. The real turning point came with a very successful Vienna premiere in 1918, which led to at least 60 productions outside Czechoslovakia within 10 years.
In a surprising bit of progressive thinking, New York’s Metropolitan Opera gave Jenu˚fa its American premiere in 1924. It was sung in German — standard practice outside Czechoslovakia at the time — and boasted an all-star cast. Audiences were enthusiastic; the critics decidedly less so. The Evening Standard proclaimed, “No one ought to take it into his head that Jenu˚fa is the worst opera we have ever heard. We can think of twenty that are far, far worse. But Jenu˚fa is quite bad enough.” The Evening Sun reviewer said, “A more complete collection of undesirables and incredibles has never previously appeared in opera.”
Laura Wilde (Jenu˚fa)
on dealing with loss
“When I did this opera before, I had to take a lot of hot baths. I would get tension migraines after rehearsals. Everything is very intense. I’m on the floor a lot in a fetal position. Janácˇek’s writing is true to the human experience. When her baby first dies, in Act 2, she is someone in shock, and the music and words are written that way. She’s half-drugged, she’s weak, she just had the baby eight days earlier. In Act 3, months later, as a human person, she still hasn’t processed the loss. But when she sees the baby [whose body had been discovered frozen in a river] — that’s when she finally has a breakdown. Another composer might have written this huge explosion of emotion right when she first finds out, but I think this is more accurate.”
on the role of womenin Janácˇek’s operas
“He had a rage about the human condition, and he was very inspired about the place of women in society. You could say that all his operas are really about women and the women’s very difficult roles in society. The women are always much stronger and more complicated people than the men. In this piece, Jenu˚fa and her stepmother — it’s all about them. These tenors, Jenu˚fa’s lover and the one who disfigures her, are basically weak. It’s a matriarchy but not on the surface. It’s the women who keep the world going in spite of the men, who are drunkards and womanizers. When I describe Jenu˚fa, the music is as beautiful as Puccini, but this rage about society adds an edge that is more like Beethoven.”
on singing both Jenu˚fa and Kostelnicˇka at different pointsin her career
“I originated the role of Jenu˚fa in the original version of this production at the Houston Grand Opera in 2003. This is my first Kostelnicˇka. It’s my role debut. When you take on a new role, you have to familiarize yourself with the whole tapestry of a piece — texturally, musically, dramatically. So many scenes are with Jenu˚fa. I’m already so familiar with the tunes, the text, all of it. To be so intimately familiar yet for it to be a new endeavor is interesting. It should be said I’ve been wanting to do Kostelnicˇka since I first sang Jenu˚fa. I don’t want to say in print it’s a better part, but it is. I think she goes through the bigger journey. The biggest change. Arguably, it’s the title role.”
As a student at Prague’s organ school, Janácˇek was too poor to afford a piano of his own, so he painted black and white
keys on a tabletop for practicing.
Jenu˚fa’s world premiere took place in Brno’s Na Veverˇí Theatre, a converted dance hall seating about 350 with an orchestra pit that held 34 players, a much smaller band than the opera’s orchestration called for. Contemporary productions typically
have an orchestra of between
60 and 70 players.
The opera’s title isn’t actually Jenu˚fa. It’s Její pastorkynˇa, which is used only in the Czech Republic. Its literal meaning is “not her own daughter.”
In other words, “her stepdaughter,”
referring to the character of Jenu˚fa. Janácˇek’s Austrian publisher opted for the less unwieldy name to facilitate international productions.