Sunday, November 29, 2009

Fucked Up Moments in Opera #4: Jenufa by Leos Janacek

In the realm of the fucked-up in opera, Janacek is without a doubt the all-time champion for reasons that could be documented all week. But tonight let's focus a bit on his first great opera: Jenufa. One day, hopefully soon, Jenufa will be performed with all the frequency of Verdi. The plot is simple yet the elements speak clearly to what Janacek's world is about: abuse and mutilation of women, unwanted pregnancies, imprisonment by family members, religious insanity and infanticide. In its depiction of small-town brutality it is close to the world of Chekhov, but the stark horrors of its violence are much closer to the worlds of Dostoevsky and Isaac Babel.

Jenufa, like so many pretty small-town girls around the world, has a case of 'wrong guy syndrome' and falls for the town rake (or jock), Steva - an alcoholic who has long-since impregnated her by the beginning of the opera. By the beginning of the opera, Jenufa realizes she is pregnant and prays that Steva will not be conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian army so that he can marry her. Steva arrives back in town completely drunk and boasting to Jenufa that he can get any girl in town. Jenufa is of course incredibly jealous, but Steva assures her that no girl in town can compete with her 'apple-blossom cheeks.'

(The great ending to Act I of Jenufa complete with mutilation. Unfortunately no subtitles but the scar makes the point rather finely.)

Like so many town small-town swingers, Steva has a resentful brother (step-brother in this case). Laca has been in love with Jenufa since they were children, but Jenufa never paid much attention to the beta-brother. Even so, it scarcely seems that Laca is the right guy either. Laca overhears Steva's comment about Jenufa's cheeks, and in a bizarre mixture of jealous rage, flirtation-gone-wrong, and S&M, Laca only half-accidentally mutilates Jenufa's face with a knife, forever branding her with a huge scar on her cheek. Rather brilliantly, Janacek leaves the question of whether Laca meant to do it open-ended. Laca is immediately remorseful and it is very difficult not to have a bit of sympathy with this man, however savage and violent he is.

But the real star of Jenufa, even more than the title role, is the stepmother: the town Kostelnicka (sacristian) whose name is never even given - a religious fanatic more witch than woman. It is in Act II that she comes into her own, in one of opera's most unforgettable scenes. Kostelnicka discovered Jenufa's pregnancy before anyone else, and hid her away in a cottage outside town and orders Jenufa to pray for her son's death. The act begins eight days after Jenufa gives birth and the boy is quite healthy. Kostelnicka summons Steva to the house and begs him to marry Jenufa, but Steva says that he can no longer love Jenufa now that she has a horrible scar on her face. Instead, Steva becomes engaged to the mayor's daughter and offers nothing more than a little money to provide for his child. Kostelnicka, alone and delusional, elects to drown the baby in a frozen lake so that Jenufa may retain her honor, resolving that God will forgive the sacrifice. Jenufa,m still weak from the pregnancy, has no knowledge of Kostelicka's murder and assumes that her son simply died and Kostelnicka buried him.

(The unforgettable scene of child murder as done by one of the great sopranos of the 20th century - Anna Silja. This version was done in 1989. Silja, now nearly 70, performed the role unforgettably at the MET as recently as the spring of 2007)

Act III takes place in springtime at the wedding of Jenufa to Laca, the man who cut her with a knife. Even so, everything seems to have resolved itself until the mayor is told that factory workers have found the corpse of a dead baby in the lake. Jenufa cries out in horror that the child must be her's. The town immediately forms a lynch mob (as it only can in an opera), demanding vengeance against Jenufa. The mob's bloodthirstyness is only quelled by Laca protecting Jenufa singlehandedly from their harm and the Kostelicka's wrenching confession that she killed the child without telling Jenufa. Steva is publicly disgraced by the confession and the mayor's daughter demands to be released from their engagement. As the Kostelnicka is lead away, presumably to her death, Jenufa resolves that she truly loves Laca and the opera ends on a note of overwhelming forgiveness....fucked up, no?

(Finally, English subtitles. The last ten minutes from Kostelnicka's confession. More Silja, and she is simply magnificent. Roberta Alexander and Philip Langridge scarcely pale either.)

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