In an art form where death is as ubiquitous as high C’s, the killing of a baby is still gut-wrenching. How can there ever be forgiveness for such an act?

“Infanticide is such a shocking thing. When Mimí fades away, or Tosca leaps to her death, we’ve lived with them — they’ve already had voices,” said David Alden, director of Santa Fe Opera’s production of Leoš Janácˇek’s Jenu˚fa (pronounced YEN-oo-fa). “To have this silent little creature drowned like this is really upsetting.”

Written between 1896 and 1903, Jenu˚fa is based on Její pastorkynˇa (Her Stepdaughter), an 1890 play by Gabriela Preissová. Preissová moved to Hodonín in Slovácko, an area rich in Moravian folklore, when she married at 18. Although she was charmed by the traditions of the area, she criticized its social prejudices and defended the right of women to live freely and independently. Her writing described the harsh realities of life for the impoverished Slovak population there. The story is based on real-life events, Alden said.

While many productions set the action in a 19th-century Moravian village and dress characters in traditional costumes, Alden moved the story to Communist-ruled Czechoslovakia during the 1950s. “Things never change,” he said. “The story is so intense and dark, so much about human pain and rage. This is a fundamentalist community where people can so easily be rejected from society and punished. And yet, there’s a spark of humanity and love within all of us that somehow can help us survive.

“The definition of catharsis, a Greek term, is that through a terrible tragedy, somehow you find release. That’s what is really extraordinary about this piece.”

Jenu˚fa (soprano Laura Wilde) is rejected by her baby’s father, disfigured by a man who loves her, and her baby is murdered by her stepmother. And yet, somehow, she manages to forgive.

“In this weird turn in the last act, it’s as if clouds open, and Jenu˚fa starts to feel love. It’s amazing and very earned. It’s a catharsis, and it’s all in the music. The score is so powerful and the ending is such a release.”

Stepmother Kostelnicˇka is utterly devoted to her stepdaughter, said Patricia Racette, who sang Jenu˚fa in the original version of this production (for Houston Grand Opera in 2004) and is taking on her first Kostelnicˇka this summer. “She is someone who has lived and learned in this narrow-minded small town. The solution she takes to save her stepdaughter’s life is extreme but ultimately makes sense.

“Every character I play, no matter how far she is from my real personality, I try to put myself in that. When I need to go there, I’ll picture what it is she does, lowering a baby into a river, forcing it underwater. To me, the level of extreme anguish and fury, her passion for self-preservation, is remarkable. She desperately wants to roll back time, but she can’t.”

Kostelnicˇka is a respectable person, said Cori Ellison, Santa Fe Opera’s dramaturg. “She’s a church sexton. But she was married to an awful, abusive, and alcoholic man, and she doesn’t want the same thing to happen to Jenu˚fa. If Jenu˚fa raises a baby born out of wedlock, she’s a ruined woman. She’ll never marry. Kostelnicˇka is desperate to solve this. She acts with a crazy mixture of real love and concern for saving face.”

Janácˇek, who composed Jenu˚fa, was trying to show an unvarnished realism, Ellison said. “These characters are flawed. Nobody is perfect. But at least Jenu˚fa is shown, at the very end, to be capable of love. Nobody is perfect, but they’re all just trying to do their best.”

Charles Edwards worked with Alden on the original Houston production and is back this summer as scenic designer in Santa Fe. “We made the visual world of the opera gray, bleak, arid. That’s also the emotional landscape of the piece,” Edwards said. “We wanted to strip away the folkloric context by putting the piece a hundred years later, during the Communist era. The stepmother, Kostelnicˇka, represents the old, devout ways still observed by small-town people in spite of the official Communist stripping-away of religion.

“Janácˇek had a lot of sadness in his life, and there is a sense of sadness in this piece. He was not a joyous man, and yet joyousness finds its way in at the end. We are suspended, musically. Jenu˚fa feels what unconditional love might be like as it is offered to her by Laca [tenor Alexander Lewis in the SFO production]. In spite of everything that has happened to her, she feels like she can continue. It’s the last scene of the opera, and it’s hair-raising.”

Wilde worked with Alden in her first outing in the role, at English National Opera in London, in 2016.

“Getting to do Jenu˚fa is a gift in a career, but David doesn’t make it romantic,” she said. “Jenu˚fa has to go through the death of her baby twice. She has to grieve it twice. The first time, when she thinks the baby has died of a sudden illness, she is in shock. The second time, when she sees the frozen body of the baby and recognizes it as her own, she just crumples.

“Then she gets to the forgiveness. It’s not complete, a forgive and forget. What happens in Act 3, there is an acknowledgment in almost every major character of mistakes they’ve made. The thing  Jenu˚fa sees is that everybody made mistakes but made them out of love.”

Wilde said that it’s this act of forgiveness that gives Jenu˚fa a sense of humanity, unlike many other operas. “Now, everything in society is black and white, but that’s not how things are, and that’s not how we should be dealing with the people around us.” In the final moments of the opera, she tells the man who rejected her, “That is real love, I hope it doesn’t hurt you.”

The man who disfigured her, Laca, vows to love her forever. “She sees the goodness in him that was previously hidden, covered by his jealousy and anger. It all becomes clear to her.”

Wilde has her own way of looking at things. “We are two broken people seeing each other and choosing to walk forward in life. She has this inner strength. She recognizes that everyone is at fault. She chooses to go on.” ◀

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