A new production of Leoš Janáček’s opera Její pastorkyňa (also called Jenůfa) premiered at the Janáčkovo divadlo in Brno last night (17 February 2006). It was great to be there—I felt quite privileged to see a first night in the city where Janáček lived and worked, in the theater that bears his name, just a few blocks from where the opera was first heard 102 years ago (21 January 1904).
The plot is straightforward, though it seems more violent than actually comes across in a synopsis. [Act I] Village beauty Jenůfa, step-daughter of a respected church matron, has become pregnant by Števa during spring festivities. They vow to marry, but the step-mother intercedes due to Števa’s drinking. Laca, Števa’s older half-brother and vying suitor, slashes Jenůfa’s cheek with a knife after telling her that Števa loves only her beauty. [Act II] It is winter. The step-mother has hidden Jenůfa in her cottage, telling the villagers that Jenůfa has gone to Vienna, and the baby was born. The step-mother tries to convince Števa to marry Jenůfa by showing him the baby, but he says it is impossible since he is already engaged to the Mayor’s daughter. Laca visits the cottage and the step-mother informs him that Jenůfa has returned but has a child. He is still in love but shocked by the news. Fearing that he will now refuse to marry Jenůfa, the step-mother tells him that she is only testing his love and that the baby actually died in birth. Laca leaves, saying that he will marry Jenůfa. The step-mother decides to drown the baby in the river since this is the only way she sees to make the wedding a reality. [Act III] In early spring the wedding preparations are underway. Laca and Jenůfa are congratulated by all, including Števa and his fiancée. The preparations are interrupted when workers chopping ice from the river come to the village to report that they have found the corpse of a baby frozen in the ice. Jenůfa recognizes the baby’s bonnet, and the villagers begin to accuse her of killing the baby. To save her step-daughter and absolve her guilt, the step-mother comes forward and admits to the murder. The step-mother is condemned to death and taken away. Jenůfa is afraid everyone will abandon her, but Laca says he still loves her and will not leave. Jenůfa rejoices at having found a true love that meets with God’s approval. [Curtain]
The staging in the new Brno production is traditional—no minimalist sets or conceptual costumes—and there are only a few rocks to be seen on the stage. (Apparently the recent production at the Met featured a large boulder on the stage, which was never fully explained except that stones are mentioned at a few points in the libretto.) There were also only a few kroj (folk costumes), which seems to reflect the current opinion that Janáček was not writing an opera about folkloristic village life but an opera about life, which happened to be set in a south Moravian village. This seems appropriate since there are only a few scenes that require kroj (the return of the villagers and soldiers from the army recruitment in Act I and the wedding preparations in Act III). This allowed more character development since individuals and personalities were not obscured by the costumes or made to seem “ethnic.”
The violence, as mentioned, is certainly more apparent in the synopsis than it seems during the opera. That is what happens, though not necessarily what the opera is about. The real "plot" is the growth of the characters: Laca and Jenůfa become pious and mature adults, and the Kostelnička learns she cannot manipulate fate, dictate the word of god, or trade in lives to avoid social censure. As John Tyrrell writes in TNGDMM2 Online, "It is wrong to emphasize the violent actions of the opera – Laca’s slashing of Jenůfa’s cheek, the Kostelnička’s murder of Jenůfa’s baby. . . . The shocking course of events is not there for gratuitous violence, but as a depiction of the hard lessons they have had to learn. The Kostelnička has the hardest lessons of all and it is fitting that Janáček’s title for the work should reflect that she is the main character."
Apart from the production, our seats were directly behind two interesting gentlemen. Whoever they were – perhaps one was Mr. Tyrrell – they certainly held strong opinions about the performance. One thought it was acceptable, but the second was very unforgiving. He shook his head half the time to let everyone know that he did not approve. He was particularly dismissive of Števa, Jenůfa, and the Kostelnička; Laca met his standards. (I thought they were all excellent, though particularly Laca and the Kostelnička; I over heard the critic saying, in Czech, that the Kostelnička was performing “without soul,” though most of the conversation was too quiet for me to hear.) Granted, I was a bit enamoured with the idea of seeing one of Janáček’s operas in Brno with great Czech singers, and this made me a bit less critical of the performance (plus, I am not much of an opera buff); regardless, I still do not think it acceptable to forgo applauding for certain singers at all because of mere artistic differences. This stems partly from my performance experiences: whether the performance has come off well or not is irrelevant, there has still been an enormous amount of effort, time, and soul poured into the preparation (at least for a premiere) and the performers deserve some credit. Given the large number of productions that the theater keeps in its repertory for long periods, I am sure that the musicians are overworked and perhaps not always able to give their best performances. So I clapped along with everyone, and even participated in the eventual standing ovation.
Future performances can be found by searching on the website of the National Theater in Brno's website, www.ndbrno.cz.