5 July 2019
From the Director's Chair: David Alden on "Jenůfa"
By David Alden
We who love opera are lucky to be living now! Not only have the great works of Monteverdi, Cavalli, Handel, Rameau and other masters of the 17th and 18th centuries been rediscovered and now bring joy and passion to our modern stages, but the operas of Leoš Janáček have finally established themselves internationally as great, timeless masterpieces. Though they were once perilously close to being consigned to that sad family of quirky, out-of-the-way works forgotten by history, pioneering conductors like Rafael Kubelik and especially Charles Mackerras have fought since the mid-1950s to bring them to Western audiences, and companies like the Royal Opera House, English National Opera and Welsh National Opera have shown that Janáček is worthy to stand next to Puccini, Verdi, Wagner, and the other Masters.
I remember vividly my first awakening to the magnificent music and intense drama of Janáček. In 1967 the Hamburg State Opera visited Lincoln Center and, among other works they presented which were virtually unknown to the New York audience, they performed Jenůfa. Up to my standing-room place in the Family Circle wafted amazingly vivid sounds clearly influenced by folk music but rethought in a tough 20th-century idiom. And later came gorgeous, soaring music for sopranos, reminiscent of Richard Strauss but edgier and angrier and somehow possessing more backbone and urgency (my apologies here to the late, great creator of the Santa Fe Opera, John Crosby, who was a Strauss fanatic...). I began to seek out recordings of Janáček operas; in those days one had to search for the obscure and difficult-to-find Czech label Supraphon – where, often without translated libretti and in rather harshly recorded sound, I first heard Kát’a Kabanová, The Cunning Little Vixen, and the other incredible works which gripped me and never let go. Now, fifty years later (!) I have had the joy of directing these works all over the world. The more I work with great singers and conductors on these operas the more I adore them.
Jenůfa is Janáček's first great opera, written over a number of years (around 1895 to 1903) in a difficult period of his life. He and his wife had already lost an infant son to illness, and now their 20-year-old daughter Olga lay dying as the opera neared completion. It is said that Janáček sat by her deathbed, transcribing her dying words and turning them into music, some of which may appear in the opera. Jenůfa was a great success in the small opera house in Brno, the city in which Janáček lived most of his life. He assumed that it would be presented at the Prague National Opera, where it would hopefully be heard by a more international audience and possibly bring him some fame and success. But the theater was run at that time by a composer named Karel Kovařovic. Janáček (who often wrote articles and reviews for a local music publication) had written a negative critique of one of Kovařovic's operas years before, and the disgruntled Kovařovic had not forgotten, and refused to present Jenůfa in Prague, in spite of its great success.
Only in 1916 was Jenůfa finally presented in Prague — but in a version rescored and partly recomposed by the still-vengeful Kovařovic which softens and romanticizes the music, thus supposedly making it more attractive to audiences. The opera was a great success in this version, soon taken up by major European companies and traveling as far as the Metropolitan Opera. This recognition rejuvenated the aging Janáček and in his seventies and eighties he wrote a series of operas, symphonic and chamber works and songs which rank with the greatest ever composed. Jenůfa was played in the inauthentic Kovařovic version until Charles Mackerras studied the original manuscripts, cleaned away the changes and published an authentic score in the 1960s. This is the version we are presenting in Santa Fe.
Jenůfa is based on a late-19th-century play by Gabriela Preissová — a harsh slice-of-life drama which takes place in Moravia, a little-known and secluded area of Czechoslovakia. Janáček had already traveled through this region, transcribing local folk music (like Bartók some years later in Hungary) and was fascinated by the life and customs of this society. The play (and opera) exposes the difficult life of women in this male-dominated world, the tension of living in a small and judgmental town and the danger of strict religious fundamentalism. The characters are complicated and all undergo fascinating intersecting emotional journeys.
Jenůfa herself begins as an intelligent and generous soul, and undergoes a harrowing hell of disfigurement, forced seclusion and emotional torture during her out-of-wedlock pregnancy and the birth of her child, and the shocking discovery of the murder of her baby. The half-brothers Števa and Laca, very different individuals (one rich, spoiled and reckless, the other poor and disinherited, resentful and border-line psychotic) also are forced by circumstances to suffer and change in different ways. Perhaps most fascinating of all is the journey of the Kostelnička. Poor but proud, she begins as the strong moral center of her community, descends into a purgatory of religious fanaticism and shame and murders her step-daughter Jenůfa's baby in a shocking act of self-deluded fury.
Janáček took this play, which created a scandal at its premiere in Prague in 1890, cut some text but basically composed the play as written, and turned the material into a painfully honest depiction of weakness and brutality transformed by the human capacity for love and forgiveness. The miracle of the final scene, in which Jenůfa is finally able to forgive the man who disfigured her in a violent fit of jealousy and find a way to love him, is overwhelming. The orchestra thunders out a musical apotheosis as if the heavens were opening and God's light finally shines on these two suffering people. Few other operas I know have the capacity to move an audience as deeply as Jenůfa.
My designers (Charlie Edwards and Jon Morrell) and I are moving the action of Jenůfa out of the 19th century to about one hundred years later, as if the remote Moravian town of the original has been pulled into the Soviet occupation in the early 1950s. Religion has been suppressed but remains a powerful if forbidden force, the mill has been repurposed into a factory, the old folk costumes and music and dance are half-forgotten, but the people try to hold onto what they can of their past in the bleak present. The struggle between rich and poor, woman's difficult place in society, the dangers of religious fundamentalism — these main themes remain strong and dominant in this setting. Strange how little things change in the human struggle and the human soul.
Jenůfa opens July 20 and runs for five performances until August 15, 2019. The cast includes former Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Laura Wilde, Patricia Racette, Susanne Mentzer, Alexander Lewis, former Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Richard Trey Smagur, and former Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Will Liverman. Johannes Debus conducts in his company debut.