An Eighteen Month Delay but Worth the Wait for Jenůfa at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Xl__jenufa-c-roh-2021-ph-tristram-kenton © (c) ROH 2021, Ph. Tristram Kenton

Jenůfa, which premiered in Brno in 1904, is an opera in three acts by Leoš Janáček to a Czech libretto by the composer. It is based on the play Její pastorkyňa by Gabriela Preissová, and is one of the very first operas to be written in prose. Set in a Moravian village in the nineteenth century, the plot concerns a series of tangled relationships that derive from the fact that two fathers both married twice, and had a child by three of their four wives before dying. Števa and Laca were both born to the elder brother, and Jenůfa to the younger and his first wife. Three of the four wives also died, with the Kostelnička who survives being the younger brother’s second wife and hence Jenůfa’s stepmother. Custom dictates that Števa alone will inherit the family mill and that Laca and Jenůfa must consequently earn their livings.

Jenůfa is in love with Števa and secretly pregnant with his child,  though he is casual towards her to say the least. Laca is in love with Jenůfa and, being bitter at his half-brother’s favoured position and the attention Jenůfa shows him, slashes her cheek in a fit of rage. Once the baby is born, the Kostelnička keeps it and Jenůfa out of the sight so that no one knows about it. When Števa finally visits, after the Kostelnička demands he take some responsibility, he agrees to provide money in secret, but insists that no one must know the baby is his. He no longer loves Jenůfa since Laca spoiled her beauty, and is now engaged to marry Karolka, the mayor’s daughter.

Asmik Grigorian, Jenufa (c) ROH 2021, Ph. Tristram Kenton

The Kostelnička’s next hope is that Laca will marry Jenůfa, but when she tells him the truth about it, he is disgusted at the thought of taking Števa’s child under his wing. Fearful that Jenůfa will be left with no husband, the Kostelnička tells him the baby is dead and then feels compelled to make the lie true by taking it from the house while its mother sleeps. When Jenůfa subsequently awakes, the returning Kostelnička tells her the baby has died. Laca then comforts Jenůfa, and asks that they spend the rest of their lives together.

On Laca and Jenůfa’s wedding day the following spring, the body of the baby is discovered in the millstream under the melting ice. Jenůfa immediately says the baby is hers, and the village prepares to exact immediate justice against her until the Kostelnička proclaims the crime to be hers alone. Hearing the whole story, Jenůfa forgives her stepmother, and while the Kostelnička is taken to jail, Jenůfa and Laca are left alone. Jenůfa says she cannot expect Laca to marry her now, but he replies that he wishes to spend the rest of his life with her.

Although it is difficult to dispute that the Kostelnička committed a heinous crime, in the context of the opera it becomes easy to understand her desperation. Her concern is that Jenůfa is not left alone, and the problem is a society that will judge a single mother, and the men who will readily turn their back on a woman with a child, including the one who fathered it. Indeed, when at the end of Act II the Kostelnička sees Laca saying he wants to be with Jenůfa, when he had been so hostile when the baby was alive, it becomes easy to see why she could convince herself that she had acted for the best.

Karita Mattila, Asmik Grigorian, Jenufa (c) ROH 2021, Ph. Ivor Kerslake

Claus Guth’s new production was originally set to appear at the Royal Opera House in March 2020 before COVID-19 demanded the venue’s closure. A few principals are different to those who had been planned then, but the majority, including Jenůfa and the Kostelnička, remain the same, while this production proves itself to have been worth the eighteen month wait.

Michael Levine’s set is geared less towards specifying a particular time and place than to conveying a sense of what it is like to live and work in this close-knit village. All of the action occurs in the same box-like area consisting of monochrome shades. The three surrounding walls appear to comprise rows of window blinds, though they remain firmly shut, while every time the curtain rises the initial action is revealed through a cage-like wall, leaving us in no doubt as to how claustrophobic the place feels. 

The people’s homes are represented by a series of identical spaces that line the set’s three walls. Each contains a bed, table and chair as well as a man and a woman, and as the central action takes place we see the women peeling potatoes or making beds. It makes sense because most mill workers would probably have lived in such Spartan mill lodgings. More importantly, however, it blurs the line between public and private space as the community is essentially on the stage for the entire first act, even when the central characters would normally be alone, thus suggesting that nothing is truly private. After the Kostelnička scolds Števa and the soldiers for their drunken antics, everyone retires to their own house so that we see a man and a woman sitting on each bed, looking exactly like those to the left and right of them. The conclusion in this context might be that if you live a quiet and uneventful life, simply blending in with those around you, then you are lucky. At the same time, however, the men and women sit on opposite sides of the bed facing outwards so that they stare into the face of the person in the adjacent room. This suggests that the potential for promiscuity and scandal is always only a hair’s breadth away.

Asmik Grigorian, Jenufa (c) ROH 2021, Ph. Tristram Kenton

In Act II, the main action takes place quite literally in a cage, which may be metaphorical, but does not feel so far removed from the type of room in which the Kostelnička would be keeping Jenůfa and the baby out of sight. The baby is described as wearing a red bonnet, and during the scene a child walks across the stage splattered in the same coloured blood, making the baby’s subsequent ‘sacrifice’ feel Christ-like. A figure dressed as a raven perches on the cage, creating a wonderful shadow on the wall, while all of the women surround the central scene wearing black bonnets that also suggest ravens. When Jenůfa sings her ‘prayer’ they all attempt to climb the wall, though whether they are reaching for the higher, spiritual ground that her words inspire, or are desperately trying to escape their present situation, remains ambiguous.

Although Act III includes bloodthirsty crowds, overall it is more sparsely populated and sees flowers strewn across the floor, which Laca scoops a handful of to offer Jenůfa. In fact, just before the end we have roughly the same number of people on the stage as in the first scene, except that this time they really are alone with no chorus surrounding them. This helps us to hone in on the emotions of the individuals involved, while the ending does this even more by placing Jenůfa and Laca in front of the dropped curtain so that we focus solely on them.

Henrik Nánási delivers a lithe and highly successful account of Janáček’s enigmatic score, while the strong cast all round is headed by four superb principal performances. Asmik Grigorian in the title role reveals a sound that feels sweet and pure on the one hand, and yet possesses enough strength and edge to make her portrayal feel particularly impassioned. Karita Mattila, with her rich and full soprano, convincingly conveys the Kostelnička’s conflicting emotions, Nicky Spence produces a tremendously expansive sound as Laca, while Saimir Pirgu’s tenor is immensely striking in the role of Števa. The opera can be watched on ROH stream from 15 October 2021.

by Sam Smith

Jenůfa | 28 September - 12 October 2021 | Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

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