Unsuitable suitors, infanticide, facial scarring, a wicked stepmother. It’s not a telenovella, it’s an opera by Leoš Janácek (1854 – 1928), a Czech composer of great originality. Jenufa (composed 1894, with extensive revisions until its premiere in 1904) is his third opera, but the first that achieved world success.
Janácek was consumed with the fight for Czech independence and the revival of the Czech language over German, which had dominated the culture for centuries. Folk tales and folk melodies became his raw materials. He evolved intricate theories of “speech-melody” as he called it. He walked around with a notebook, notating the pitches and rhythms of friends and strangers in ordinary speech.
“A speech motif breathes with its own warmth, glows in its own light. I hone its melodic corners, its rhythmic surfaces—like a jewel.” In this way Janácek captured the innermost psychology of his characters.
Add to that his linear orchestral style and his music has a unique spiky style. For example, the opera opens with a xylophone, circling around and around ominous half-steps that symbolize time, the stream, and the mill-wheel.
“Moravia by herself can give me all the inspiration I need. So rich are her sources.”
Jenufa is a setting of a play by a female playwright. The original title is “Her Stepdaughter,” but it’s known as Jenufa (the stepdaughter’s name) outside the Czech Republic. Two half-brothers want to marry Jenufa, and she is pregnant by one of them, the one her stepmother deems unsuitable. Stepmom is the moralizing “leader” of the little village. The man Jenufa wants (Steva, the father of her unborn child) is an arrogant drunk, forced to promise to stay sober for a year before he can marry her, which he has no intention of doing. The other man (Laca), who really loves her, nevertheless slashes her “apple blossom” cheeks with a knife in a jealous rage.
In Act Two, months later, Jenufa has had the baby. Her stepmother (Kostelnicka) steals the eight day old infant while Jenufa sleeps (aided by a potion prepared by guess-who) and throws it into the millstream after lying to Laca that the baby was already dead. She then lies to Jenufa also, telling her the baby died while she was asleep. Laca enters and pledges himself to Jenufa in marriage, which she surprisingly accepts despite not really loving him, and that pesky cheek-slashing incident.
“I used to think very differently about life/but now perhaps it is as if I stood at the end of it.”
In the third act, right before the wedding ceremony, the millstream thaws and the baby’s body is found. The righteous villagers, assuming Jenufa killed her own child to save face, prepare to stone her to death. But Kostelnicka confesses. Jenufa forgives her, and the new couple start a new phase of their lives together, with deeper understanding.
What makes this implausible plot so convincing is the elemental emotional charge of Janácek’s music, constantly painting the psychological truth underlying the “mere” words the characters are uttering. There lies the power of music to go beyond literature. “If speech-melody is the flower of the water lily, it nevertheless buds and blossoms and drinks from the roots, which wander in the waters of the mind.”
“In this opera I have painted in black on black; gloomy music—such as was my own spirit.” During final revisions on the opera, Janácek’s daughter Olga died, aged twenty. He had already lost his son Vladimir at age two, decades earlier. To confront truth is to suffer, but to understand that pain is to grow.
© 2009 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs