Composer Janáček's path to fame was not an easy one. Jenůfa is based on Její pastorkyňa (Her Stepdaughter), a play by Gabriela Preissová. Janáček had to wait twelve years from the work’s premiere at a small theatre in Brno to the National Theatre in Prague. But today, Jenůfa is one of the most popular Czech operas and an example of the best of artistic realism of its time, as seen in the current production directed by Jiří Nekvasil.
Young Jenůfa has eyes only for the conceited Števa. His half-brother Laca is jealous him, concealing his love by rough behaviour. When in a fit of unhappiness Laca strikes Jenůfa in the face, Števa rejects her, and Jenůfa remains in the care of her foster mother, the churchwarden’s widow (Kostelnička) and gives birth to Števa’s son. Because Laca, who admits to the widow that he loves Jenůfa, cannot come to terms with the birth of child, the widow resorts to lies and assures Laca that the baby died soon after birth. The woman takes the child out into the cold, and when, after a long sleep, Jenůfa is searching anxiously for her son, Kostelnička convinces Jenůfa that she had fainted and that meanwhile the infant had died. Shortly afterwards, Jenůfa and Laca’s wedding should take place, but the churchwarden’s widow starts to be wracked with guilt.
The opera is rooted in the Moravian countryside, evidenced by the authentic costumes and traditional dances, and by Janáček’s faithful portrayal of the local dialect. Although the first act has an idyllic feel and a celebratory atmosphere, a dramatic twist occurs in the middle of the play, and the music builds up to a tense climax, culminating in a masterful performance by soprano Eliška Weissová as Kostelnička. However, in the third act, the tragic tension gives way to a purgatorial moment of confession and subsequent forgiveness. You leave not with a sense of despair but with the knowledge that all paths in life are ultimately unpredictable.
The opera is performed in the original Czech with English and German subtitles. The musical accompaniment is provided by the Orchestra of the National Theatre, conducted by Jaroslav Kyzlink.