Facial Disfigurement and Murder At the Heart of Jenufa

Most Metropolitan Opera performances that we review were written by Italian composers-the operas are popular long-standing staples, and we have known the music from childhood. We may not always know the names of the operas that the music comes from–Carmen (which we will be reviewing later this year) and the Barber of Seville top the list–but the actual music is familiar. Those operas are similar–generally hopeless love, with lavish costuming and scenery, catchy music, big choruses, and mostly light (sometimes comedic) tone.

Not true of Jenufa, a Czech opera that the Met staged on Monday evening. The three act opera, by Leos Janacek, is a harrowing tale of infanticide and honor. Perfect for Halloween evening, right?

The opera looks at the dark side of life and contains no flashy staging (in Act II the only scenery on stage is a big rock). There are no great love scenes. Instead Janacek presents us with a mostly internal psychological drama; one very much out of fashion today–where, in order to survive, a victim must embrace her attacker and learn to love him.

A quick recap of the plot reveals that Jenufa, a young woman in love with a drunken, good-looking cad named Steva, is secretly pregnant with his child. Although Steva is drunkenly boasting about other women in front of the whole town, Jenufa still wishes to marry him. But, without knowing that Jenufa is pregnant, her step-mother wisely tells Jenufa that she will not allow the marriage until Steva stays sober for one year.

There is not a chance of that, and Jenufa knows it. She is distraught, but even more so, after Steva’s half-brother, Laca, comes on stage with a knife. In a jealous rage, he declares his love for Jenufa, and slashes her, saying lets see if Steva still wants you now.

It is a horrible point in the opera, but is only the beginning of the agony for the title character. This opera is about taking one dark turn after another.

In Act II, Jenfua has already had Steva’s baby. The step-mother has kept Jenufa in hiding during the time of the pregnancy and now calls on Steva to come and see the baby and do “the right thing.” Of course, the vain and superficial Steva, is no longer interested in Jenufa, with her scarred face. Instead, it is slasher Laca who comes to the house and declares his undying love for Jenufa.

Let’s stop right here. What? In today’s world, one would hope that this would be unthinkable and Laca would be in jail. But, I digress, as I remember that this opera premiered in 1904. Deep breath.

The step-mother tells Laca of Steva’s rejection and that there was a baby, but it has “died.” It is at this point, that the step-mother realizes that Laca is Jenufa’s only route to legitimacy in the town and that she has to get rid of the baby. So, while Jenufa is drugged, the step-mother takes the baby from her and leaves it outside to freeze to death. Jenufa, thinking that the baby died of natural causes very reluctantly agrees to marry Laca, as she thinks that it is her only option.

The opera ends with the townspeople finding the baby’s body and, after Jenufa is accused, the step-mother confessing her crime to save Jenufa.. Jenufa seems to understand her step-mother’s motives and to forgive her. Left alone on stage with Laca, Jenufa tells him that she has been disgraced and that he should not marry her. He, however, declares his undying love, and the final curtain falls.

Okay, this is the kind of stuff that makes my roll my eyes and be glad that I did not live in the world before women had more choices. But, I do have to admit that there was such a world–certainly during Janacek’s time. And to admit to myself that sometimes women are still put in positions where their choices are not optimal or even really palatable.

All this to say that the plot really bothered me. But the music was beautiful. At first, there was a folksy style to it. Then there was the desperation, a plaintive tone, that anyone who has lost a love can relate to. And as Jenufa’s situation became more and more hopeless, the music takes the perfect agonizing tone. The composing is really outstanding and worth a listen to, particularly live (I have heard the supposed definitive recording and hearing it live is really the way to go).

The orchestra, under the conducting of David Robertson, was excellent. The singers were generally adequate. The exception was Karita Matilla, who stood out for the excellent color of her voice. The soprano previously had sung the role of Jenufa in this same opera in 2003. She did an outstanding job here, perfectly portraying the heartbreak and resolve of the step-mother.

Daniel Brenna, who played Laca, was ill on Monday night, and this review does not in any way critique his singing. After the second act, his cover, Garrett Sorenson, had to sing while Brenna mouthed the words onstage, which was a bit unnerving, but it appeared that he may have done a more than adequate job with the role had he been well.

There will be three more performances of this opera this season–November 7, 12 and 17. If you are up for something dark and different, this could be your lucky day.

About the Author

Leslie Treff

Leslie Treff is a contributor for NY Sports Day, covering NY NHL teams. She has been covering the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils for more than 15 seasons. Leslie is a recognized expert in hockey prospects and has served as a scout for several independent agencies. A member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, in her former life, Leslie was an attorney in the judiciary in New York City.

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