Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Leoš Janáček, Jenůfa (1902)


That title there confuses me. Because wikipedia says (and has a poster from the premiere proving this) that the Czech title is Její pastorkyňa ("her stepdaughter"), but the English title is the main character's name? Why? Who decided that? Pretty weird.

Wikipedia--again--calls this "a grim story of infanticide and redemption," which made me expect some of the ol' Gritty Eastern European Realism, but while there certainly IS that, I was surprised by how sweetly sentimental it turns out to be. Definitely not what I was expecting.

Let's talk about the plot! Actually, I really seriously got into this, and it might be worth watching without knowing what's going to happen. But I'm going to talk about it anyway! So there! So we're all Czech peasants. Jenůfa is in love with Števa, who's going to inherit property and be rich; she's also secretly pregnant by him. Laca, his younger half-brother, is in love with Jenůfa. Števa is a drunken, womanizing layabout, and Laca is insanely jealous. She refuses to accept his attacks on her beau, and in a rage, he ends up sorta-kinda-half-accidentally slashing her cheek with a knife, for which he immediately feels remorse. Later, her baby is born; her stepmother (and de facto real mother) Kostelnička had kept the pregnancy secret by sending her off to Vienna, and no one knows about it. Števa shows up and learns about his son, whom he agrees to support as long as his name is kept out of this; he no longer loves Jenůfa to due her new scar and general outlook; he's engaged to a non-scarred girl. He leaves and Laca appears; he still wants to marry Jenůfa, having throughly repented of his earlier action, but he's not happy at the thought of having to raise Števa's child, to which Kostelnička's immediate response is to tell him that it's dead. After he leaves, she works herself up to do the deed (I don't know, maybe first ascertain whether Laca can maybe perhaps be reconciled to it rather than leaping immediately to infanticide? Just a thought), and then tells Jenůfa that it just kind of died. Laca comforts her and she agrees to marry him. But when it comes time for the wedding, the baby's corpse is found under the newly-melted ice. The people first blame Jenůfa, but Kostelnička tells them the truth and is taken off. Also, now that everyone knows about Števa, his fiancée leaves him, and no one will ever want to marry him, "not even a gypsy girl," and man, I could've lived without that comment. Oh well. Jenůfa tells Laca that they obviously can't get married now, but he still wants to, and they're in love. So there you have it.

Janáček's best-known opera is The Cunning Little Vixen, which I found a little baffling. I liked this one a lot better. The drama feels real, and, as noted above, I was swept up in it. You can certainly ask questions, like: how deep is Laca's repentance? Is this likely to be a happy marriage? This is one of those deals where one perhaps wants a little bit more detail than opera can realistically give. But I was basically happy to take it at face value. I think it works. The music is...well, mostly inobtrusive, I guess? I think I had a similar reaction to it as to Vixen, although it has its moments, my favorite being the wedding chorus near the end. This performance is very good, featuring another great performance by Nina Stemme in the title role--which, again, fits her very well. Eva Marton is similarly strong as Kostelnička, and Jorma Silvasti does a good job of making Laca go from seeming like a jerk to...not.

This is really good; I want to see more of Janáček's stuff. Also, I hope you appreciate the effort I went through to write this; I had to do a shitload of copy and pasting to get those Eastern European diacriticals. And yes, if I'd written this in a web browser I could've just held down the key, but that doesn't work in Openoffice, and in any case, even that doesn't work for the u with the circle over it. So.

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