... or the first great opera of the 20th? Leos Janacek's "Jenufa" has a fair claim to both titles, the one indisputable quality being its greatness. It's Janacek's most passionate and dramatic opera, with an integration of vocal and orchestral music into a symphonic wholeness that exposes the Czech composer's theoretical indebtedness to Wagner. That, and its pious/perfunctory allusions to Christian salvation, are its 19th C attributes. The bold sexual explicitness of its libretto, written by the composer himself, and the even bolder chromaticisms and dissonances of its orchestration, are its claims to modernism. Janacek composed "Jenufa" in bits and pieces throughout the 1890s, but the work's originality was too strange for the opera company of Prague, which rejected it. It was premiered in Brno in 1904, and only later in Prague and Vienna, in a version trimmed and re-orchestrated by the music director Karel Kovaroivich. Thereafter, like all of Janacek's operas, it suffered neglect for decades. Proper recognition of Leos Janacek's stature has been tardy, but today five of his operas are staged regularly and triumphantly on every major operatic stage of Europe and North America: Jenufa, Katia Kabaonova (1921), The Cunning Little Vixen (1924), The Makropoulos Case (1926), and The House of the Dead (1927). Excellent performances of all five are available at last on DVD.
Jenufa is a tale of seduction, jealousy, abandonment, and infanticide, set in a quiet country village in Moravia. This production, by the Gran Teatre del Liceu of Barcelona, maintains the folkloric ambience demanded by both the libretto and the music, in costuming and dramaturgy though the physical sets are minimal and symbolic. Jancek incorporated not only authentic Czech melodies but also the distinctive aesthetics of Czech folk music into his symphonic score. There are four central characters: Jenufa, the beautiful stepdaughter; her stepmother Kostelnicka, a stern, domineering widow of village prominence; and her two foster "brothers" Steva and Laca. It's Steva who impregnates Jenufa but evades marrying her, while it's Laca who disfigures her out of mad jealousy but loves her unreservedly. Steva is handsome, dissolute, irresponsible, and charming. Laca is dour and plodding. The strongest spirit in the family is the fierce Kostelnicka, whose determination to save her stepdaughter and herself from shame leads to her downfall.
Kostelnicka is powerfully sung and acted by the acclaimed aging Wagnerian superstar Eva Marton. In this production, as well as on the other available DVD of Jenufa, it's Kostelnicka who dominates both the drama and the musical passion. Fortunately, Nina Stemme sings the role of Jenufa every bit as powerfully, and acts her role as emotively as Marton. That isn't the case, by the way, on that other DVD, where Anja Silja is magnficent as Kostelnicka but Roberta Alexander is inadequate as Jenufa, both dramatically and vocally.
Laca is sung by Jorma Silvasti, whose gorgeously ample voice and convincing stage presence thrust his role to the forefront of every scene in which he appears. In short, he nearly steals the show. The wastrel Steva is a lesser man in every way, and the role of Steva is smaller than Laca's; Pär Linskog sings and acts Steva effectively, but he's overshadowed musically by Silvasti.
Eight minor characters and a chorus of villagers complete the vocal cast, all singing more than adequately. One of the joys of this DVD is the exquisite balance between the singers and the orchestra, fully integrated with each other in acoustic presence. The Orchestra of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, conducted by Peter Schneider, plays with clarity and transparency, and without any of the late-romantic schmaltz that often fuddles the complex sonorities of Janacek's music on other recordings.
There's a solid exegesis of Jancek's philosophical-musical intentions in the notes to this DVD, which I'll quote: "Janacek's moral ideology is influenced by a specific vison of nature. His understanding of tragedy is not marked out by the classical concept of sin. It is in nature that Janacek found a cyclical transcendency that had a deep effect on his work. There is no pessimistic view of human nature in Jenufa .... there is always rebirth and hope as premised by nature ... amid the stones scattered over the stage, amid the traces of the tragedy that has befallen her, a new beginning for Jenufa's life is sealed." Hey, I couldn't say it more clearly myself; in Janacek's operas and music, the Sublimity of Life always prevails.