28 March 2019
"Jenůfa": Leoš Janáček’s earliest operatic masterpiece
By Cori Ellison
the search for the melodic truth of the moment
Jenůfa, Leoš Janáček’s earliest operatic masterpiece, is a stark and resolutely realistic tale of adversity and redemption. Perhaps that’s why we think of Janáček as a 20th-century composer, while we tend to consign most of the works of his exact contemporaries, Puccini and Strauss, to the previous century. We are apt to group Janáček’s operas with those of Bartók, Berg, and even Britten. Like Britten, Janáček created a body of astonishingly distinctive, diverse, and forward-looking operas over a 30-year period. But unlike Britten, 32 years old at the premiere of his breakout opera Peter Grimes, Janáček was an awfully late bloomer.
After studies in Leipzig and Vienna, the Moravian composer returned to Brno (now part of Czechia), to serve as a schoolteacher from 1880 until his retirement in 1904 at age 50. During those years, he composed chamber and orchestral music, as well as choral pieces for local groups he conducted, yet most of his musical work until about 1895 was devoted to folkloric research.
Janáček's first two operas, Šárka (1887) and the one-act Počátek Románu (The Beginning of a Romance, 1894), are redolent of Czech folklore, songs, and dances, clearly in the lineage of his distinguished nationalist forerunners Bedřich Smetana and Antonín Dvořák, who he would soon join in the pantheon of his nation’s greatest composers.
The folkloric vein in Janáček’s work would continue, but in a strikingly modern and personal distillation fully revealed in his third opera, Jenůfa, first performed in1904 in Brno. Here, Janáček used folk music not as an exotic “seasoning” but as the core of a distinctive and personal mode of expression based on “speech melody” or stylizations of the irregular patterns of everyday Czech speech. The eminent Czech novelist Milan Kundera described the composer’s use of speech melody as,
“The search for the vanished present; the search for the melodic truth of the moment; the wish to surprise and capture this fleeting turn; the wish to plumb by that means the mystery of the immediate reality constantly deserting our lives, which thereby becomes the thing we know least about.”
David Alden’s stirring production of Janáček’s “Czech verismo” masterwork, pulling the Eastern bloc setting closer to our time, incisively mirrors Jenůfa’s uncompromisingly frank portrayal of violence, loss and suffering. But this dark backdrop renders the opera’s final wondrous glimmer of irrepressible human hope all the brighter and more uplifting.