243. Jenůfa (Janáček)


  • Opera in 3 acts
  • Composer: Leoš Janáček
  • Libretto: Based on the play, by Gabriela Preissová (1902)
  • First performed: National Theatre, Brno, 21st January 1904, conducted by Cyril Metoděj Hrazdira


JENŮFASopranoMarie Kabeláčová
LACA KlemeňTenorAlois Staněk-Doubravský
Števa BuryjaTenorBohdan Procházka
Kostelnička BuryjovkaSopranoLeopoldina Hanusová-Svobodová
Grandmother BuryjovkaContraltoVěra Pivoňková
Stárek, the Mill foremanBaritoneKarel Benýško
MayorBassAlois Pivoňka
Mayor’s wifeMezzoEma Kučerová
KarolkaMezzoRůžena Kasperová
Recruits, servants, girls, villagers, musiciansChorus 


A Moravian village, the 19th century.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“Don’t look in dramatic music for melodies – opera must be of the stuff of which real life is made,” Leoš Janáček argued. Real life there is in spades in Jenůfa, his first success: teen pregnancy, jealousy, assault, infanticide, desperate respectability, maternal love, and forgiveness. And while Janáček has a reputation as both a “difficult” composer and one of the twentieth century’s two or three greatest makers of opera, there is plenty of melody, too.

Jenůfa was Janáček’s third opera, but is really considered the start of his career in this field. His first opera, Šárka, composed in 1897, was not performed until 1925, while Janáček thought little of Počátek románu (The Beginning of a Romance) (1894), “an empty comedy” into whose “artificial atmosphere” he introduced (“not in the best of taste”) “splendid Czech folk-songs”.

In Jenůfa, Janáček developed his mature style, incorporating “speech-melodies” (notated fragments of spoken Czech, raised to lyricism).

“For many years,” he recalled, “I have been on the track of the musical sounds of Czech words: they are not to be found just in harmony, in chords – I know that the well is much deeper. The happy, carefree chatter of a child, the undercurrent of passion in the speech of a young woman, the clipt, manly tones of a successful business-man, I recognise them all.”

In Jenůfa, his concern was to “express the mental torture of Kostelnitčka and Jenůfa”, stern village sacristan and her stepdaughter, who conceives a child out of wedlock. (While the Western title makes Jenůfa the dramatic focus, the Czech title, Její pastorkyňa, means “Her Stepdaughter” – the “She” in question is the Kostelnička.)

What impresses most about Jenůfa is the multi-faceted, naturalistic characterisation. Act I skilfully establishes the main relationships. Two stepbrothers (Števa, a drunken spendthrift, and the jealous Laca) are both in love with their cousin, Jenůfa, who is carrying Števa’s child. Jenůfa seems to be frightened of her stern stepmother, the Kostelnička Buryjovka, but her grandmother dotes on her. At the end of the act, Laca stabs her, disfiguring her.

By the lights of operatic convention, the Kostelnička will be the villainess, the oppressive older woman who punishes the younger woman for her ‘sin’, like the Princess in Puccini’s Suor Angelica (1918). Laca is the third angle of the romantic triangle, who tries to stop tenor and soprano from finding happiness together.

But our understanding of the characters changes over the opera. The formidable Kostelnička is a devoted stepmother and a murderess; the handsome tenor lover Stefan is worthless, quick to abandon Jenůfa; and the violent Laca is a decent man and a selfless lover. Even the doting grandmother spoilt Stefan and neglected Laca; how much responsibility does she bear for the tragedy?

Act II takes place in winter, five months after Act I. Jenůfa has given birth, and Stefan has deserted her. He refuses to acknowledge the baby as his, and proposes to another woman. In desperation, fearing disgrace, the Kostelnička exposes Jenůfa’s baby, abandoning it on the ice. Jenůfa agrees to marry Laca, who loves her. The act is dramatically powerful, and features two mad scenes for soprani: the Kostelnička’s decision to kill the child (“Co chvíla… co chvíla…”) and Jenůfa’s search for her baby (“Marnicko, mám tezkou hlavu”) / prayer (“Kde to jsem?”).

Act III takes place in March, early spring, on Jenůfa and Laca’s wedding day. The dead baby is found in the melted waters of the mill-stream, and the villagers turn on Jenůfa, believing she has killed her own child. The Kostelnička confesses that it was her crime. Jenůfa is appalled, but understands what her stepmother did, and forgives her. The theme of the grandmother’s marriage blessing (in the 1970 Gregor recording, “Uctivo vás prosím”) is beautiful; there is great tenderness in Jenůfa’s forgiveness of her stepmother (“Vstante, pestounko moja…”); and the Kostelnička’s aria (“Odpust’ mi jenom ty”) is moving. The opera ends in a glorious, transcendental finale as Jenůfa and Laca accept what has occurred, and find a new life together.

Janáček based the libretto on a play by Gabriela Preissová (1862–1946), who thought it unsuitable for versification into a libretto. But Janáček did not want a conventional libretto; like Massenet (Thaïs, 1898) and Debussy (Pelléas et Mélisande, 1902), he set the prose to music.

Nor did Janáček want that music to be conventional. Abbate & Parker note that Janáček “felt he needed a new musical language to make the opera work dramatically”. True, Chisholm considers it Janáček’s most conventional opera: Jenůfa features traditional harmonies; flowing, memorable melodies; and smooth and easily grasped rhythms. The music is continuous, but in definite ‘sections’ and contrasting ‘numbers’; the music is tonal; and the melodies move in flowing, diatonic lines, not as disjointed, disjunct explosions.

But that is “conventional” compared to Janáček’s later operas; it does not sound like Puccini or Strauss, for instance. It is starker, sparer, yet radiant.

While the first act shows the influence of Smetana (folk choruses and dances, and even a quartet, the sort of formal opera number Janáček avoided in later works), the second and third acts show Janáček finding his own voice. “Janáček’s is a supple orchestra of stabbing, alien interjections between independent, vivid vocal lines; abrupt, fragmented motifs and their elaborate decorations are the foundation of his style,” writes Ewans. Paul Griffiths finds Janáček’s style “totally individual, marked by a splitting intensity of expression and colour forced into small motifs, and energetic ostinatos under broad lyrical lines”. Experts say Janáček is influenced by Moravian folk music: spare orchestration, exultant rhythmic energy and harmonic freedom (Ewans); short, repeated figures, tritone (augmented fourth) as melody interval, and rhythms determined by the rhythms of spoken language (Chisholm).

But Jenůfa’s novelty impeded its success. The work took Janáček a decade to write, and a dozen years more before it became popular.

Janáček wrote two versions of the opera. The first (1894–97) is “rather light in character and possibly emphasises the love interests”, according to Chisholm. The second (1899–1903) is “more tragic and intense on account of Janáček’s own personal tragedies at the time”. His beloved daughter, Olga, died at the age of 21 from influenza; he identified her sufferings with those of Jenůfa, and dedicated the score to her memory.

The Prague National Theatre, however, showed no interest in Jenůfa, declaring it was unsuitable for performing. Janáček had written an insulting review of an opera by the Prague theatre’s chief conductor, Karel Kovařovic, who took umbrage. (Sample line: “The Overture, with its instability of key sense and wavering harmony, gave proof of the composer’s genius – to induce deafness.”)

Jenůfa premièred in Brno in 1904. According to Chisholm, the little opera company’s resources were “enthusiastic but limited” – there were no flutes, and the strings were amateurs – but the work was a success: Janáček and Preissová took several curtain calls, Janáček was carried on the crowd’s shoulders to a party at the Artists’ Club, and Jenůfa was hailed as the first Moravian opera. Janáček himself, however, said that he never went to the Brno Theatre to hear Jenůfa, given the orchestra’s shortcomings. “It is agony for me to listen to it in such a state. Heaven knows what an unsympathetic stranger must think of it!”

Mark Audus states that this version is more traditionally turn-of-the-century verismo: ensembles like Italian pezzi concertati, extended set-pieces, and more conventional orchestration. These were cut when Janáček revised the opera between 1906 and 1913 (the 1908 Brno version).

Jenůfa was not performed in Prague until 1916, when Kovařovic “corrected” the score, cutting out repetitions, and altering the orchestration, for instance replacing trombones with horns, and extending the reconciliation scene at the end. Chisholm considers that Kovařovic’s ‘improvements’ “distort, and sometimes ruin” Janáček’s music, but notes that Vladimir Vogel, a conductor at the Prague National Theatre, considers Kovařovic’s instrumentation “nearly always an improvement”. In that form, Jenůfa was a great success, and was soon performed in Vienna.

In the mid-20th century, when Janáček’s works started to reach the West, Jenůfa was perhaps his best-known opera. It was, Chisholm wrote, “a masterpiece of realism, naturalism, and verismo, which is rightly claimed – for dramatic tension and musical spontaneity – without equal in the annals of Czech opera”. Its mixture of Moravian village life and psychological crime story are a piquant combination, and the grim story is emotionally true, while its optimistic resolution is uplifting. The Cunning Little Vixen may be both more accessible and more uniquely Janáček, but the Czech master’s magic begins here.


Listen to: Libuše Domaninskayá (Jenůfa), Vilém Přibyl (Laca), Naděžda Kniplová (Kostelnička), and Ivo Žídek (Števa), with the Prague National Theatre Orchestra, conducted by Bohumil Gregor, Prague, 1969. Warner Classics 9482652.

Elisabeth Söderström (Jenůfa), Wieslav Ochman (Laca), Petr Dvorsky (Steva), Eva Randová (Kostelnička), and Lucia Popp (Karolka), with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, Vienna, 1982. Decca 4144832.

Works consulted

  • Erik Chisholm, The Operas of Leoš Janáček, Pergamon Press, 1971
  • Michael Ewans, Janáček’s Tragic Opéras, London : Faber & Faber, 1977
  • Paul Griffiths, “The Twentieth Century: To 1945”, in The Oxford History of Opera, ed. Roger Parker, Oxford University Press, 1996
  • Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker, A History of Opera: The Last 400 Years, Penguin Books 2015
  • Mark Audus, Jenůfa – original version”, UE Musik Salon

2 thoughts on “243. Jenůfa (Janáček)

  1. Why are you recommending a recording of the Kovarovic orchestration instead of one with the composer’s intended orchestration?


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