By any standards Janacek’s opera, Jenufa is an extraordinary piece of work, visceral and devastating but seeing and listening to it at this time, with Russia invading Ukraine, gave it an added poignancy. This was something Tomas Hanus, the Welsh National Opera’s Music Director, felt so strongly that he gave a short talk before the show began. He reminded us of our own humanity in such troubled times and assured us that, tragic as this opera is, the work ends in forgiveness. It is a work about a community in a secluded village in Moravia and a reminder that even to the most ordinary people extraordinary things can happen. Though written over a century ago, it is also very current in its themes, particularly in the composer’s exposure of the physical, sexual and emotional abuse of the women in the piece.
The Music Director, Tomas Hanus, lived as a child in the same village as Janacek which has given him a love for this composer and particularly for this opera. It showed. The range from lightness to tragedy was beautifully handled and wrung the heart. This is one opera that always moves me to tears and that is partly because Janacek has written a naturalistic opera about people we can all recognise.
The music is full of the folk tunes of the area which Janacek loved and grew up with. In the overture, skipping rhythms and the heavily accented music which sometimes remind us of the composer’s contemporary, Dvorak, lead us into the first scene set in the village mill where all the action takes place. It is a busy scene, full of the musical chatter of the villagers, where we meet all the main characters. Here the love triangle of the two men – half-brothers Laca and Steva – who want to marry Jenufa, Steva unworthy but whose baby son Jenufa is already carrying, Laca riven with jealousy which causes him to cut her face with his knife, a scar which she thereafter carries.
Janacek has an extraordinary ability to set everyday Czech language to music. The Chorus of gossipy villagers chatter and flow, twisting and turning and overlapping in a way that manages to be both realistic and musically pleasing. To have turned the libretto into English could not have worked. So fast-moving is this chatter, however, that it is hard during all the crowd scenes to follow the translation above the stage.
Contrast this scene with the next which is largely a musical dialogue between Jenufa and her stepmother Kostelnicka. Jenufa has given birth to her son and the soft tender words she sings manifest her love for the infant, though worthless Steva has no interest and is hoping for a socially better marriage to the Mayor’s daughter. Kostelnicka, who was herself ill-treated by Jenufa’s father, has kept Jenufa in hiding to conceal her shame, but now out of her concern for her and realising that she will always be a pariah as an unmarried mother, she drugs Jenufa and drowns the child in the frozen river.
This is largely a solo, where we hear the to-and-fro of her terrible thoughts. Susan Bickley’s deep voice throbbed with passion and led the audience in horrified silence through her terrible plan. It was clear that for her this was a resolution that she felt would allow Jenufa to lead an ordinary life, a resolve led by affection for the girl but with a clear understanding of what it would mean if she were found out.
This scene was claustrophobic in its setting, a dark room with little light which allowed us to focus on the drama that was occurring between the two women. Susan Bickley as Kostelnicka had adopted a forward thrusting movement which gave her eyes a piercing quality and lent her voice strength and colour as she swung between resolve and terror. Her role is well-known to be one of the most testing written for a contralto voice. Bickley conveyed it with power and feeling.
Then comes the finale, where the characters of Jenufa, played by Tanya Hurst, and Laca, played by Peter Auty, develop. Both transcend themselves and the theme of forgiveness coupled with a gentler kind of love than hitherto shown in the drama emerges. A neighbour has found a baby in the gradually melting waters of the river and the whole sad tale is revealed in a scene crowded with all the neighbours, the Mayor and his wife and the soon to be wed Steva and the Mayor’s daughter.
Recognising her baby Jenufa’s whole demeanour softens as she grieves over the child and, without caring for her character or position in the village hierarchy, she owns what she has done. Her sung prayer for the soul of her child is moving enough to bring tears to the eyes. Kostelnicka confesses, knowing full well that her admission of infanticide could be the end of her life. Once again this is a masterly piece of acting and singing; she makes no apologies, despite the fact that her sacrifice – to clear the way for Jenufa to make a normal life for herself – has been undone by her stepdaughter’s public claiming of her child. The Mayor makes sure she is arrested but she leaves with head held high. It is as if Jenufa’s own transparency has created a transformation in herself too.
The ending of the opera might have been devastatingly sad but justice, through Kostelnicka’s confession, has been done. Steva is shamed; he will not now marry the Mayor’s daughter. Laca, however, shows his worth – despite having scarred Jenufa physically for life. Jenufa recognises that he is not ashamed of her as most men of that era would be, sees her true and loving soul and that together they will be a rock on which scandal-driven gossip will founder.
The ending is one of the touches put in by Katie Mitchell, who directed the original production. We are shown a scene where Kostelnicka is walking amongst white lilies accompanied by the orchestral music which asserts the theme of uplifting forgiveness and transformation with a sublime lightness of touch and soaring of the string section. Light shines on Kostelnicka’s peaceful face. Is she dead and in Heaven or has she been forgiven and set free? We are left to make our own decision, but here is Music Director’s promise in his opening address that humanity in the end wins.
Welsh National Opera is nearing the end of its Spring tour. I thoroughly recommend this production if it is anywhere near you.
This article was previously published on Lark Reviews.