Great moments in opera: Jenůfa

March 11, 2011

After my underwhelming experience with The Cunning Little Vixen I nonetheless decided to try another of Janáček’s operas, and I turned to Jenůfa, written twenty years earlier. I listened to a very well-regarded recording led by Charles MacKerras, and I viewed a performance on DVD as well.

Jenůfa makes a sharp contrast with The Cunning Little Vixen, as it turns out. Whereas the latter was a barnyard fable full of fantastic effects, Jenůfa is a strictly, even grimly, realistic story. It is disturbing and dark, pivoting around an infanticide. Janáček doesn’t allow the darkness to completely overwhelm the opera though; before the curtain falls there are some few glimmers of light edging in around the corners. It is not finally a work of despair.

The opera’s subject matter, though undoubtedly upsetting, is not gratuitous. The infanticide that is the story’s central tragedy comes about not out of madness or bloodlust, but simply from an understandable desire to safeguard the mother’s future happiness, to which the child has become an obstacle. Everyone’s motives are, in a sense, admirable, yet this dead child is the result. In her defence, Jenůfa herself does not desire the death of her child; the act is done by her step-mother without her knowledge or consent. But, despite that difference, the parallels with our time are obvious enough. In this respect, the horror of Janáček’s drama can show us our own faces.

Musically Jenůfa bears a certain resemblance to The Cunning Little Vixen: it is through-composed, with little, if anything, that could be regarded as a conventional operatic aria. There are few big tunes to catch the ear. His setting of the (Czech) text is largely syllabic, perhaps in an attempt to give the music the rhythms of speech. The orchestral writing is lush and frequently beautiful. I actually enjoyed listening to the opera more than watching it because I found I could concentrate more easily on the orchestra’s contribution.

My favourite section of the opera is, rather unexpectedly, a setting of the Salve Regina (Zdrávas královno, in Czech). It is sung by Jenůfa during the opera’s middle act, as she awakes from sleep and prays for the protection of her infant child. In context the prayer is troubled by a dark irony, known to the audience, that the child has been killed while she slept, but as an expression of a mother’s love poured out in prayer and song, it is wonderfully effective on its own terms.

(I was unable to find a clip of this section, so I made my own. This is my first attempt to make a video to accompany a piece of music; granted that it is quite rudimentary, I nonetheless think that it turned out fairly well. The part of Jenůfa is sung here by Elisabeth Söderström. The commotion at the end heralds the tragic news of her son’s death.)

That is stunning. A more typical example is provided by the following scene, which closes the opera. The scene begins with Jenůfa’s step-mother, Kostelnička, confessing to the murder of the child; as she does so, the other principals — Števa, the father of the child, and Laca, Jenůfa’s fiancé — realize that they too bear some responsibility for the baby’s death. When Kostelnička is led away, Jenůfa is left alone with Laca, and a moment of tenderness and reconciliation closes the opera. Jenůfa is sung by Anja Silja; English subtitles are included.

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