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Jenůfa, Opera by Leoš Janáček

Jenůfa, Opera by Leoš Janáček

Many regard Jenůfa as the first opera in which Leoš Janáček put his characteristic musical style on full display. The gripping and tragic storyline combined splendidly with his avant-garde approach to composition, producing a standout work of early 20th-century musical theatre. Jenůfa premiered on 21 January 1904 at the National Theatre in Brno, albeit with a slightly adapted and toned-down score. Fellow composer and conductor Karel Kovařovic intervened to adjust the orchestration, as many felt Janáček had taken too many liberties with it. Perhaps because of this rapid action, Jenůfa found some early success and acceptance among the general public. Nowadays, however, Janáček’s unadulterated original is the preferred option. Teatro dell’Opera di Roma presents this pastoral masterpiece in its intended form this season.

Even though it is popularly known as Jenůfa, Janáček’s opera has the proper title Její pastorkyňa, or Her Stepdaughter in English. It comes from the play of the same name by Gabriela Preissová, which the composer used as a basis for the libretto. The first of a few operas where Janáček would take all creative tasks, Jenůfa is a great example of his complete creative vision. He was also motivated by personal tragedy: the untimely death of his daughter Olga coincided with the completion of the project, and he dedicated the opera to her memory. The raw emotion and real-life drama seep through the score. Its slight unorthodoxy and idiosyncrasy seem to reflect the composer’s state of emotional disturbance.

The plot of Jenůfa is based on the complicated relationships in a small Czech village. Števa, the son of a deceased mill-owner, is having a secret affair with Jenůfa, Kostelnička's stepdaughter and his cousin. Laca, Števa's half-brother, has secret feelings for Jenůfa himself. As a drunken Števa makes public advances on Jenůfa, who has now become pregnant from him, Kostelnička, announces she will only allow the two to marry if the young man gives up drinking for a year. The enraged Laca cuts Jenůfa’s cheek with a knife, claiming that Števa would never love a disfigured woman. The baby’s birth brings peace and comfort in Jenůfa’s life – she gets to hide from the rest of the village and raise her child in peace. Meanwhile, Števa never publicly acknowledges he is the father. As Kostelnička struggles to marry Jenůfa off, she resorts to a shocking and tragic measure that will turn the complicated plot upside down. Audiences at Teatro Costanzi are sure to stand on the edge of their seat.

image Rome Opera House / Silvia Lelli / Teatro dell'Opera di Roma