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Jenufa, A Good Girl in Big Trouble

The Dresser understands that most Americans do not see themselves enjoying theater communicated in a language with which they have had no experience. Jenufa (pronounced yen-new-fa)


by Leos Janácek (lay-osh yä-'ne-chek') is an opera best sung in Czech, the language in which Janácek wrote the libretto based on the play Její pastorkyna (Her Stepdaughter) by Gabriela Preissová.


The astute operagoer will calmly observe that surtitles have removed language barriers from the current day opera experience. Still, as director David Alden said on April 24, 2007 during a news roundtable organized by Washington National Opera to promote Jenufa,


people have a hard time motivating themselves to go to an opera where “you can’t pronounce the name of the opera or the composer.”

Impetuously, the Dresser, who once spent two weeks in Prague, asked soprano Catherine Malfitano, who is playing Jenufa’s stepmother for a third time in Alden’s award-winning production and who was very passionate about singing Jenufa in Czech, “mluvíte chesky?” When she returned a completely puzzled look, the Dresser, not wishing to one-up or offend, quickly translated, “Do you speak Czech?” The answer was “no,” of course. Furthermore, none of Alden’s cast is Czech or speaks Czech. However, the conductor Jiri Belohlávek is Czech and this makes a huge difference to the singers because Belohlávek understands Czech phrasing and therefore knows when to give the singer more time to produce the Czech words.


Also, there is something more to the importance of singing Jenufa in the original language. Janácek keyed the writing of his libretto to something he called speech-melody (napevky mluvy). Here the Dresser whispers in the reader’s ear about the word mluvy, which clearly translates to the English word speech as in “mluvíte [speak] chesky?” Janácek spent years collecting speech melodies which included a range of odd utterances from a woman calling her chickens to the last words and sounds of his dying daughter Olga to whom Jenufa is dedicated.

Malfitano added that the Czech script for Jenufa contained no wasted words. This the Dresser interprets in Poet Speak as every word counts and has weight, that Janácek cut out dead words and predominately used nouns and verbs, shunning superfluous connectors and unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. Apparently English translations of Jenufa contain dead words that disturb the flow of speech-melody.


A Czech journalist in the news conference audience offered that Janácek wrote Jenufa in the Moravian dialect, which is a particularly mellifluous and poetic form of Czech. The journalist wanted to know if he could expect to see some of the nuances of the Moravian dialect in the surtitle translation. Christina Scheppelmann, Director of Artistic Operations and WNO General Director Plácido Domingo’s right hand, fielded the question by saying that not only are surtitle translations condensed, but the translation also depends on the director’s interpretation of the work.


The Dresser does not know if any of the discussion thus far would convince language-shy audience to come hear Jenufa, winner of the 2007 Laurence Olivier Award for Best new Opera Production, but she herself is eager to see Patricia Racette again. Racette played a similar role in the 2005 Metropolitan Opera premiere of An American Tragedy by Tobias Picker with a libretto by Gene Scheer. An American Tragedy is also about a small town girl who becomes pregnant by an immature and cavalier young man. The Dresser expects that Racette, who played the lead role in Alden’s first updated production of Jenufa, has perfected this kind of character—she knows how to play the good girl in big trouble.

In the April 24 news conference, Racette said that the difference between Jenufa and Roberta (in An American Tragedy) is that Jenufa had no option for an abortion and so her emotional state is much more desperate.


Patricia Racette as Jenufa pleads with Raymond Very as Steva
Photo Credit: Washington National Opera

Added to Jenufa’s situation, which her stepmother is hiding by saying the girl has gone away to another town, is that the half brother of the father of Jenufa’s child is jealously in love with Jenufa. His frustration turns ugly and he slashes Jenufa’s cheek with his knife, making her that much less appealing to Steva, the father of her child. On the other hand, Roberta from Picker’s opera refuses to have an abortion and ends up drowning when her lover Clyde takes her row boating and does not save her when she falls out of the boat.


The Dresser believes that younger audiences seek out gritty stories (in this case: domestic violence, sexual politics that make the woman the guilty party) that shed light on current day situations. Alden in moving the time and location of Jenufa from the early 1900s in a Moravian village to the 1950s in an unnamed European town somewhat suggesting it is under the pall of Communism has made an attempt to reach out to a new audience. Certainly having tenor Raymond Very as Steva ride a real motorcycle across the Kennedy Center Stage where Washington National Opera presents its productions adds contemporary flair. Very said riding the motorcycle on a tilted stage has him a little worried about whether he can master that skill in time for the opening curtain. The Dresser wonders if Alden pitches Steva as teenage Rebel Without a Cause James Dean, outlaw biker Wild One Marlon Brando, or substance abuser/Easy Rider Peter Fonda.


One other twist to the story of Jenufa is that Jenufa is a cousin to Steva and his half brother Laca. Jenufa’s stepmother known as Kostelnicka Buryjovka (Deaconess Buryjovka) is the second wife of Jenufa’s late paternal uncle who was also the father of Steva and stepfather of Laca. (Laca and Steva shared the same mother.) These tangled, too close relationships and the question about compatibility bring to the Dresser’s mind the following poem in excerpt by Jane Shore.


In Chinatown, we order Happy Family,
the Specialty of the House.
The table set; red paper placemats
inscribed with the Chinese zodiac.
My husband’s an ox; my daughter’s
a dragon, hungry and cranky; I’m a pig.
The stars will tell us whether
we at this table are compatible.

The waiter vanishes into the kitchen.
Tea steeps in the metal teapot.
My husband plays with his napkin.
In the booth behind him sits a couple
necking, apparently in love.

Every Saturday night after work,
my mother ordered takeout from the Hong Kong,
the only Chinese restaurant in town. …

My little sister and I unpacked the food,
unsheathed the wooden chopsticks—
Siamese twins joined at the shoulder—
which we snapped apart.
Thirteen years old, moody, brooding,
daydreaming about boys…

My mother somber, my father drained,
too exhausted from work to talk,
as if the clicking chopsticks
were knitting something in their mouth. …

Tonight, the waiter brings Happy Family
steaming under a metal dome
and three small igloos of rice.
Mounded on the white oval plate, the unlikely
marriage of meat and fish, crab and chicken.
Not all Happy Families are alike. …

by Jane Shore
from her book Happy Family


Comments (2)

The exploration of language is brilliant. This is what art is all about.The cross-pollination of language and spirit. Karren Alenier is fortunately a critic with knowledge of languages. How much more able we are with her as a guide. Also the wit of the section titles keeps starch away and lets the opera world come in off Mt.Olympus on natural terms.
Grace Cavalieri

Susan Absher:

I really enjoyed reading about the press conference the dresser attended and the insights into the challenges presented by the opera's use of a language that neither the audience nor the performers are familiar with. I'll keep Ms. Alenier's comments in mind when I attend Jenufa.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 26, 2007 4:11 PM.

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