Janáček’s small-town world

  • Themes: Culture

The Czech composer's opera Jenůfa sums up the claustrophobic horrors of village life.

On set at English National Opera's Jenufa.
On set at English National Opera's Jenufa. Credit: Ellie Kurttz

Leoš Janáček’s 1904 opera is widely known as Jenůfa, the name given to its leading soprano. But in Czech the opera was originally titled Její pastorkyňa, ‘her stepdaughter’, following the play on which it was based by Gabriela Preissová. Perhaps Jenůfa stuck because a female proper name title puts audiences in mind of the other tragic operatic heroines: Tosca (the bill poster for the premiere of Jenůfa lists Puccini’s 1899 opera just below), Manon Lescaut, Salome, Madama Butterfly, Carmen, and so on. It’s also easier to pronounce if your Czech isn’t up to much.

Yet the original title captures something rather essential about this harrowing work. The stepmother and Sacristan of the little Moravian village where it is set, known as the Kostelnička, steals Jenůfa’s illegitimate days-old baby in the middle of the night and plunges it into the icy water by the mill. She does this to protect Jenůfa, she says, from the shame of her sexual relationship with the boorish Steva, who won’t marry her despite giving her a son. Kostelnička believes she is sending the baby straight to God and giving him paradise instead of a life of humiliation. When spring comes, the ice melts and the baby is discovered; she confesses after her stepdaughter is suspected; miraculously, Jenůfa forgives her before she is taken away.

‘Her stepdaughter.’ Its original title shows the inescapable connectedness of the Kostelnička and Jenůfa in the eyes of the community, whose prurient, judgemental gaze and gossiping tongue is implied in its chilly third person. The Kostelnička fears Jenůfa’s ruin because she knows that, in a small-town world, when they look at her they will see Jenůfa.

Janáček’s operas often have shame as their subject; in Káťa Kabanová (1921) the heroine throws herself in the river after her extra-marital affair is revealed; the matriarch Kabanicha effectively thanks the assembled onlookers for driving her to suicide. In The Cunning Little Vixen, an opera whose principal cast are mostly animals, it is a kind of priapic shamelessness about sex and wanting that infuses the opera with its transcendental energies, and shows the human characters to be a repressed, dead-end lot.

The hot, claustrophobic act of being looked at by judging eyes is all over Jenůfa. The brutish Laca, in a fit of jealous rage, slashes Jenůfa’s face at the climax of the first act, trying to destroy the way Steva and others look upon her; at the very end of the opera, when they are reconciled in a remarkable act of forgiveness and ethical revelation, they both reflect that they will have to endure the horrors of the Kostelnička’s trial. A fate, in a sense, much worse than the death most operatic heroines suffer, as she and Laca try to make a life together after having lost absolutely everything and everyone they knew.

David Alden’s production of Jenůfa for English National Opera (ENO), conducted by Keri-Lynn Wilson, is austere and harrowing. There’s nothing bucolic here – not that Janáček is especially sentimental, but some productions can lean into the pastoral feel of the big chorus set pieces of party and wedding. The Buryja mill is a factory, with a boiler-suited Laca working an angle-grinder and Grandmother Buryjovka slaving away at paperwork in a grim little cabin. In act two, after the baby is born, Jenůfa and the Kostelnička are confined to a bare tenement, with boarded-over windows and a grim little cubby hole in the wall for a garish statuette of the Virgin Mary. The chorus, whether partying in the first act or rounding on both Jenůfa and her stepmother in act three, are rough and loutish, rather than chipper, ruddy-faced country folk.

Alden’s bare approach, with a steeply raked claustrophobic stage design by Charles Edwards, is an apt reflection of the rawness and psychological immediacy of Janáček’s remarkable musical dramaturgy. Janáček’s opera scores don’t use Wagnerian leitmotifs for characters or ideas, but tiny cells of timbral or melodic gestures, often obsessively repeated, to create its prevailing moods.

In act two, an extensive violin solo runs alongside rather more hieratic fateful brass chords. It reflects Jenůfa’s isolation, locked away from the community with her secret son. The writing for the instrument, both febrile and intensely lyrical, captures her anxieties as well as an outpouring of yearning and love – for her newborn son, and for Steva. When the latter is thwarted, the violin flatlines, playing a sustained, metallic open E. The opera’s coda is a serene and radiant mixture of harp and strings, built on a tiny melodic gesture that surges then drops, like a hand offered.

The word-setting has a special quality, too – while there are melismatic aria-like episodes, most of the singing follows the rhythms and cadences of ordinary speech, and seldom exaggerated by repetition or refrain. Consequently, words are backlit and intensified, freighted with metaphorical significance by the music, rather like the dreamlike, figurative speech of the patient on the psychoanalytic couch (Janáček and Sigmund Freud were born two years and four miles apart in 19th-century Moravia, as it happens).

The orchestra played with expected polish and precision, but ultimately felt a bit polite. The rattling xylophone that opens the opera and needles us on a single note throughout act one wanted a touch more brittleness; the cataclysmic timpani blows that rain down for the end of act two, as the wind howls and the Kostelnička claims to have seen the face of death, felt a little muddy. Strings, too, could’ve lashed a little harder, though the woodwind playing was reassuringly pitiless.

The show was stymied, at times, by a rather faltering translation by Otakar Kraus, revised by Edward Downes. Too often the translation tries to cleave true to both musical and line and a literal rendering of the text, with cluttered, stilted results: ‘I will the door there open for you’, one character painfully offers; ‘With him I’m finished’, another rather artlessly notes.

There were also clunky moments onstage. Steva’s rather cartoonish characterisation, clad in leather jacket and swaggering about like he’s in a production of Grease, is fun but rather begs the question of why Jenůfa is keen on such a horrible dolt at all – he seldom shows any affection for her and much of her reaction suggests she doesn’t want to be around him at all; just a rogue, not even lovable. Chairs are an inevitable motif of Alden’s productions, invariably thrown at some point in a fit of pique; this one was executed by Steva in act two with an effortful inelegance that completely sucked the energy out of the scene. (A later table-turning from Laca was much more effective.)

The singing, though, is not to be missed. Jennifer Davis, who made a splash jumping into Alden’s production of Lohengrin at the Royal Opera House back in 2018, has a voice with a perfectly calibrated balance of power and control. It allows her to soar over the luscious orchestration and also create moments of such potent privacy – her prayer for her baby when she discovers him missing – that you feel almost ashamed to be listening in. This richness and power makes her moral strength completely believable, especially at the end, when forgiving the unforgivable. Susan Bullock, who made her Glyndebourne debut with the title role back in the first flushes of her career, makes a breathtaking impact as the stepmother, taut and nervy in act two, with high notes like shards of ice and a brittle, broken sound in act three when her nerves are shredded.

Richard Trey Smagur sings Laca, a brilliantly-drawn portrait of an awkward and damaged outsider, jealous and cruel, but not beyond redemption. His physical presence – more clumsy and faltering than the bullish, swaggering Steva – is perfectly pitched, and matched by a voice that is honeyed and tender for acts two and three, vulnerability and love glowing through. ‘I would go through more than that for you!’, he sings in the closing scene, thinking of the trial, and it is heartbreaking.

The opening night’s performance was dedicated to the memory of Keel Watson, the bass-baritone who died unexpectedly at the age of 59 in 2023. He was originally billed to play the Mayor – the latest of numerous performances on the stage of London Coliseum with the company. Watson was a mainstay at ENO and Opera Holland Park, and much else besides. He also made a name in the leading roles of Wagner and Verdi for fringe companies such as Fulham Opera (now Regents Opera, whose ongoing Ring cycle was to have starred Watson). I met Keel when singing in the chorus for Fulham Opera’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in 2019; I didn’t know him well at all, but he was wonderful to sing with and hugely admired by his many friends and peers.

Keel thrilled audiences on bigger and smaller stages. His career showed the essential interconnectedness of well-funded, plush main-house work with its thriftier, more ‘agile’ – to use the cursed vocabulary of Arts Council England (ACE) – fringe counterparts, whose apparent cost-effectiveness ACE now lauds. If the managed decline set in motion by ACE’s recent cuts to companies like ENO, WNO, Mid-Wales Opera and the Glyndebourne Tour continues, there won’t be any opera worth seeing, on stages of any size.


Benjamin Poore