This was the first time I’ve seen Jenufa and indeed any of Czech composer Leos Janacek’s operas, so I was looking forward to a new experience. First performed in 1904 and known in his native land as “the Moldavian national opera”, Jenufa has continued to this day to be part of the international opera repertoire. This coproduction with Danish National Opera is sung in its original language of Czech but the setting has been moved from rural Moldava to rural Ireland. I’m not sure if that move makes any improvement in the telling of the story but it illustrates the universality of the main theme of the constricted role and place of women in a small-minded and superstitious social setting. Women generally seem to get a rough time of it wherever and whatever the circumstances in opera. Hearing the opera sung in a language of which I know not a word is also a first for me so thankfully the surtitles are there to illuminate the text!
Jenufa is in love with Steva but he is a bit of a lad and doesn’t want to commit to marriage despite the fact that she is secretly pregnant with his child. He admires her “beautiful apple cheeks” but he fears that she is becoming more stern like her stepmother, the Kostelnicka, who heartily disapproves of him. Steva’s half-brother Laca, on the other hand, loves Jenufa unreservedly but when his love is rejected, he becomes jealous and, in an argument with her over Steva’s unreliability, he disfigures her on the cheek with his knife. This has the desired effect of turning Steva off Jenufa even more but doesn’t exactly help his cause with her. Things go rapidly downhill from then on. When the Kostelnicka discovers Jenufa is expecting a child out of wedlock, she is horrified that the family will be shamed and she hides her daughter away until the baby is born. Jenufa is blissfully happy with her little son but there seems no prospect of respectability as Steva has become engaged to the mayor’s daughter. The Kostelnicka can see no other solution but to remove the baby from the scene, pretending to Jenufa that he died while she was delirious with fever whereas, in reality, she has drowned him in the river. The awful truth is eventually revealed and the consequences must be paid.
Pretty stern stuff as you will agree but as an opera lover, you get used to that! The tragic storylines are usually offset by the glorious music and thankfully this is no exception. Lee Bisset as Jenufa, Peter Wedd as Laca and Kathryn Harries as the Kostelnicka are the standouts for me. The performances of Bisset with her heartrending lullabies to her baby and Harries as a strong woman hidebound by social convention and wracked with guilt over the dreadful deed she has committed are outstanding. The orchestra, conducted by Stuart Stratford, plays Janacek’s driving and dramatic score to perfection and the action is tense and gripping.
Thankfully there is a happy end of sorts with Jenufa and Laca finally recognising their true love for each other and that they can have a future together.