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Ecstatic Tears for Jenufa

For an opera that includes kissing cousins, domestic violence resulting in disfigurement, infanticide, madness, and a near stoning, it’s hard to imagine that the Dresser or anyone else would feel ecstatic about Jenufa by Czech composer Leos Janácek, She does and rose to standing ovation with many others on May 5, 2007 for director David Alden’s updated production hosted by Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center.

The performers—Patricia Racette as Jenufa, Catherine Malfitano as Kostelnicka Buryjovka (Jenufa’s stepmother, the deaconess), Raymond Very as Steva Buryja (the father of Jenufa’s child), and Kim Begley as Laca Klemen (Steva’s half brother who is in love with Jenufa), Judith Christin as Grandmother Buryjovka—are masterful in their roles both in singing and acting. These fine artists make it easy to believe they are both eastern Europeans and working-class, melting pot Americans in the 1950s.


Racette brings sun and clouds to the stage as the opera opens. As Jenufa, she fusses over a rosemary plant that symbolically and superstitiously embodies her future. If the plant thrives—happiness, if it withers—misfortune. What she doesn’t know is that Laca is feeding her plant worms, because he doesn’t want her happiness to be with his brother Steva. Emotional light also flashes in the early moments of the opera when the boy Jano (sung exuberantly by Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist graduate Elizabeth Andrews Roberts) comes running to Jenufa to say her teaching has worked and he can read.

The tilted stage lower at the front and higher at the horizon by set designer Charles Edwards in combination with well thought out lighting work together to subliminally produce a feeling of hope that is shaded with darkness. At the beginning of the opera set in the street near a shiny warehouse, a yellow glow suggests a sunny future. After all Steva has not been drafted and he could marry Jenufa, the mother of his unborn child.

Photo Credit: Karin Cooper

In Act II’s bare room of Jenufa’s stepmother, revival lighting designer Jon Clark furnishes the nearly empty space with the shadows of the two women who have been hiding the shame of Jenufa’s child out of wedlock. The Kostelnicka had told the townspeople that Jenufa went to Vienna while, in fact, Jenufa was confined to a back room.

Photo Credit: Karin Cooper

What’s compelling about this production is that individual characters stand out in memorable ways. When Steva, clad in motorcycle leathers, dances with Slavic stomp-slide footwork in the street to drunkenly celebrate that he remains a free man, not a military lackey, the Dresser understand the sexual allure that has drawn Jenufa. When Laca playfully menaces Jenufa with his whirring drill and later cuts up flowers associated with Steva, the Dresser sees how the adolescent behavior of a young man who hasn’t been loved enough by the women who raised him can turn suddenly angry enough to slash the face of the girl he worships. The bitterness of Kostelnicka Buryjovka against her formerly-handsome-now-deceased husband (Steva’s uncle) who used to drink and beat her rages anew when she sees Steva partying in the street. As a straight-backed church elder, she declares without knowing about Jenufa’s situation that Steva needs to be sober for a year before he can marry Jenufa. As always Grandmother Buryjovka, a lumbering old woman still strong enough to run the family mill, steps in to rescue and make excuses for her chosen heir Steva. Grandmother Buryjovka in her grey business attire of skirt and jacket and sensible black oxfords stands on legs that are pillars. Judith Christin portrays Grandmother in a way that says she is both eccentric but powerful.


The Dresser who has seen Jenufa once before done in the traditional approach emphasizing the folk element and maintaining the original timeframe (early 1900s) thinks that Alden’s production which draws the situation closer to contemporary life situations has opened up Janácek artistry so that even a person who does not speak Czech can start to hear the speech melodies that Janácek wrote into the text. Possibly this has something to do with the sensitivity of conductor Jiri Belohlavek’s interpretation of the music.


In the Alden production, the Dresser found Jenufa more astonishingly willing to forgive. Jenufa forgives Laca and agrees to marry him, because while she was in hiding, he came regularly to his aunt Kostelnicka Buryjovka’s house to say how much he loved Jenufa.

Photo Credit: Karin Cooper

Jenufa forgives Steva and wants him invited to her wedding which Laca does much to the crazy dismay of Kostelnicka. Although the townspeople nearly stone Jenufa for the death of little Steva (when the ice melts, the infant is found floating in the river), Jenufa also forgives her stepmother for drugging her and then drowning her infant son. While the Dresser was silently wondering if anyone could be so good, Racette’s performance ratcheted up the emotional lode when she tells Laca she is not good enough for him. Laca, who has already said the situation is all his fault, says he is staying by her side. Startled by this epidemic of goodness, tears streamed down the cheeks of the usually stoic Dresser.

Because Janácek was influenced by Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly the Dresser offers this poem by John Surowiecki.

Chi piange? Io no, credimi.
—Salvatore Quasimodo

She tells us her son had lived for only a week,
then finds him in a stack of photographs,
dressed in a white linen smock, his face lost
in the shadow of a white bonnet. And so:

she won’t drink milk or eggnog or eat
popcorn wrapped in red or green cellophane,
she won’t touch embroidery or white satin
or gold leaf and she won’t make raviolis

because they have chubby faces
with expressions you can never quite discern
and, straining for air, they get torn open
and fill the world with snow.

by John Surowiecki
from the Hat City After Men Stopped Wearing Hats


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on May 8, 2007 1:45 PM.

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