Music with Ease > 20th Century Opera > Jenufa (by Leos Janacek)
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Opera in three acts.
Premiere: 1904. Revised production: 1907-08. Restored in 1970s/80s by Sir Charles Mackerras to a version close to Janacec's original 1904 version.
Libretto: Leos Janacec, based on a play Jeji pastorkyna (Her Stepdaughter) (1890) by Gabriela Preissova.
Jenufa (restored version). Conductor: Sir Charles Mackerras.
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Jenufa is in love with (and pregnant by) her cousin, the feckless mill owner, Steva. The latter is possibly about to be conscripted into the army. Finally this does not happen and he is about to marry Jenufa (to avoid the baby having an illegitimate birth) when Jenufa's stepmother, Kostelnicka, intervenes and says the two cannot marry until Steva has been sober for a year. Steva's stepbrother, Laca, courts Jenufa, at first affectionately. When she rejects him, he slashes her face with a knife. He is at once remorseful and apologises.
It is winter. Kostelnicka has finally discovered that Jenufa is pregnant. She hides Jenufa away in her cottage to have the baby. Steva refuses to marry Jenufa, instead just offering her financial assistance. Laca still wishes to marry Jenufa but is dismayed to hear about the baby. Kostelnicka believes the baby would be better off dead. She gives Jenufa a sleeping draft and while the latter is asleep, she drowns the baby in the frozen river nearby. She returns and tells Jenufa that the baby died of a fever. Jenufa accepts this and sees no other way out but to marry Laca.
It is spring. It is the wedding day of Jenufa and Laca. The ice cover of the river is beginning to thaw and news arrives that the dead body of Jenufa's baby has been discovered. The assembled crowd accuse Jenufa of murder. Kostelnicka is overcome by grief and confesses her guilt and explains that she committed the deed out of concern for Jenufa's future. Jenufa forgives Kostelnicka who is then led away. The faithful Laca says he still wants to marry Jenufa and she accepts.
Part of the short-score sketch of Janácek's opera, Jenufa. An interesting snapshot of Janácek's style of handwriting and music notation.
Score altered to Romantic style and finally restored
This is the first opera that was a success for Janacek. It was first performed in the Moravian capital city of Brno in 1904 but, due to in part certain professional jealousies within the management and in part to the violent subject manner of the opera, it was not to be performed in Prague until 1916.
In 1904 Janacec was 50 years old and when the opera was finally performed in Prague in 1916 (twelve years later and with the "modern" aspects of the score greatly toned down to meet the supposed demand for Romantic era opera), he was 62. Janacec now embarked on writing a whole series of sucessful operas in his old age. This enormously productive final decade of his life can be seen as his Indian summer (in contrast to his life up till 62 when he was relatively unknown).
The opera was a success in Prague but it was not until the 1970s/80s when Jenufa's score was restored by the Australian conductor, Sir Charles Mackerras, that the public would hear the unique style that Janacec originally wrote.
Moravian folk music
During the 1880s Janacec devoted much time and effort collecting and studying the folk music and dances of the Moravian countryside (Moravia now one of the provinces of the Czech Republic). He admired the rich melodies, scales and rhythms of that music.
Janacec's early operas (such as The Beginning of the Romance) repeated the tunes of quite a number of Moravian folk songes. In Jenufa he still uses Moravian folk music but does not directly quote any tunes, instead making use of the folk music's scales and harmonies as interpreted through his classical training and his own musical genius.
Janacec's own musical language in Jenufa is terse, rhythmical, and with colourful orchestration. You can hear the sound of the folk music but the music is not really lyrically tuneful and soon a dark and sombre mood comes over the whole opera.
Janacec also spent much time studying speech melody -- the naturalistic speech patterns (phrases, sentences, etc.) that the Czech and Moravian people used in their everyday conversations and the emotional context of those speech melodies.
The study of what we may call the contours of speech allowed Janacec to add voice recitatives (based on naturalistic speech melodies) over the orchestral music of his operas.
This emphasis of speech patterns led the use of prose (rather than poetry) in the libretto. In fact, Jenufa was the first Czech opera whose libretto was written in prose, rather than poetry or verse.
An opera with a distinctly Czech style
Another consequence of Janacec's incorporation of Czech and Moravian speech melodies and of Moravian folk music into his operas (such as Jenufa) was a great feeling that this opera was a truly Czech opera, free of the dominating German influence that most Czech operas had shown up till then.
Janacec was a true patriot but his form of patriotic opera went beyond that of his predecessor, Bedrich Smetana. Janacec took his native language and folk music and added his own genius to create a unique Czech operatic style.
A strong female character
Jenufa, in common with most of Janacec's other operas, features a strong female character trying to live her life under the pressure of almost irrestible tragic forces. Janacec is a master of understanding and delineating such female characters.
Combination of music and drama in a compelling manner
Jenufa is not a numbers opera (an opera broken up into a series of individual operatic "numbers", that is, the arias (songs) in which the great singers can showcase their vocal skills).
Instead, this opera features one long continuous stretch of dramatic action which sweeps the audience up with it as it approaches the climax. The drama is supported at every point by strong, dramatic and compelling music. The drama is the great thing -- not the singers -- and the drama is welded together with the music.
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Author: David Paul Wagner
(David Paul Wagner on Google+)