Upon hearing her own stepmother the Kostelnička guiltily admit that she was the one who killed her infant child—whose frozen corpse the people of the Moravian village have now discovered—Jenůfa, initially shocked and appalled, first orders her to “stand up.” Then, going against the general bloodthirsty tenor of the crowd surrounding them, she grants her forgiveness, expressing understanding of her reasons and crying out, “Even on her the Savior’s gaze will light.” As the Kostelnička is taken away to prison, Leoš Janáček lavishes sound—a crescendoing tutti complete with C-major brass chords and tam-tam—that gives the moment the feel of a spiritual deliverance, as if the music is reaching for a proverbial light. It’s forgiveness as moral transcendence, a feeling confirmed in an ensuing final duet between Jenůfa and her husband Laca, who had previously cut her face out of jealousy, but now sees the depth of her goodness and pledges to spend the rest of his life with her despite her fear of the notoriety she’s about to experience.
Leoš Janáček, “Jenůfa,” Act 3; Erika Sunnegardh (Jenůfa), Daniel Frank (Laca), from a production in Malmö, Sweden, by Orpha Phelan.
The November 17, 2016, performance of Janáček’s 1904 opera “Jenůfa” that I attended at the Metropolitan Opera—in a revival of Olivier Tambosi’s 2003 production, with Oksana Dyka singing the title role and the great Karita Mattila playing the Kostelnička—wasn’t the first time I had encountered this moment. As with many in an earlier generation, Sir Charles Mackerras—through his pioneering series of Decca recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic of the Czech composer’s mature operas in the late 1970s and early ’80s—had been my initial tour guide through Janáček’s unsparing yet beautiful musical world. But it was the first time I had seen it enacted in a fully staged live performance. This time I thought not just of the moral and spiritual implications of this finale, but of the lessons it could offer all of us in the world outside the opera house—especially as an Asian-American living in the wake of the election of Donald Trump as the next President of the United States.
There’s a school of thought in criticism that strives for something like objectivity: taking a work on its own terms and judging it accordingly, regardless of such external circumstances as historical or cultural context. This is not something that I, as a freelance film critic, generally believe in—broader context usually can’t help but influence our reactions to artworks in a given moment, and better to acknowledge that than just pretend that such factors don’t exist. After November 9—when it was clear that the ascendancy of real-estate mogul and reality-TV-show star Donald Trump to the highest political office in the country was a thing that really, truly happened—it became especially difficult to divorce real-world context from the art and culture I was consuming.
A couple days after the election, I went to a press screening of a film named “Miss Sloane” and discovered that a breezily entertaining but otherwise fairly unremarkable Hollywood political thriller about a ruthless Washington, D.C., lobbyist had suddenly acquired a new resonance. Its cynicism felt almost cathartic; its ridiculous final twist, suggesting the possibility of change in a corrupt system coming from within, bracing in its idealism. It wasn’t only fiction made before November 9 that I was seeing in a different way. “Disturbing the Peace,” an activist documentary by Stephen Apkon and Andrew Young, is about a group of Israelis and Palestinians who have come together to try to create the possibility of an end to conflict; but though aesthetically it wasn’t doing anything especially innovative, its chronicle of people on both sides finding a way to empathize with their opponents and reach across the aisle to achieve peace was bracingly inspiring from the U.S., where race- and class-based fault lines seem more exposed than ever. Even old movies couldn’t help but strike a deeper chord: a seemingly trivial horror film like the classic 1974 slasher flick “Black Christmas” suddenly acquired fresh resonance with its metaphorical depiction of the terrors of misogyny run fatally amok—truly horrifying in light of a presidential campaign which saw this video of our current President-elect snickering about women in a degrading, objectifying manner (a manner he dismissed in a subsequent television debate as mere “locker-room talk”).
And then there’s “Jenůfa.”
According to Janáček scholar John Tyrrell, when Czech playwright Gabriela Preissová’s “Her Stepdaughter” premiered in Prague in 1890, the play caused controversy: though some praised her attention to the authentic details of Moravian country life, most were appalled by the brutal story it told, one that featured lower-class characters expressing sexual jealousy and committing infanticide. It didn’t matter that, as Preissová claimed, she based the plot on two real-life incidents that occurred in the same village in which her play was set. Many found it difficult to believe that their fellow countrymen behaved in such sordid ways, and with few of her fellow practitioners of slice-of-life realism coming to her defense—perhaps put off by the drama’s religious connotations—Preissová found herself alone in the literary world. Though she remained active as a writer, she never produced anything as provocative again.
She did, however, find a sympathetic spectator in Janáček, who wrote to her in 1893 about the possibility of turning “Her Stepdaughter” into an opera. It would turn out to be a 10-year effort, during which he suffered his own devastating personal loss in the death of his daughter Olga (“Jenůfa” is dedicated to her memory). Perhaps it was inevitable, though, that, in trying to streamline Preissová’s play, Janáček found it necessary to foreshorten the backstories and broader social context that would explain some of the motivations behind the characters’ actions. The most unfortunate omission relates to the Kostelnička. In the play, her resistance to Jenůfa’s original chosen suitor, Števa, has to do with her unpleasant marriage to Jenůfa’s father Tomáš, an alcoholic and gambler who wasted away all her money and eventually drank himself to death; she sees something similar happening to the super-macho Števa, and thus concludes he’s not right for Jenůfa, bluntly telling her so in front of the whole town.
On the other hand, opera has never been an art form known for psychological nuance. There’s a reason why composers like bel canto stalwart Vincenzo Bellini and opera buffa practitioner Gioacchino Rossini can coexist in the canon with game-changing visionaries like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Richard Wagner, and Alban Berg. Something that’s described as “operatic” usually denotes a work of grand melodies and soaring, heart-on-sleeve emotions. Perhaps Janáček’s elisions of Preissová’s text indicate a similar desire to approach the elemental, with “Jenůfa” dramatizing broad conflicts between selfishness and selflessness, secularism and religion, earthiness and spirituality.
Even the musical language that Janáček developed for this opera—and which he would carry into his subsequent works, both orchestral and vocal—could be said to reflect his desire for wider accessibility. He was less interested in creating a crisscrossing network of leitmotifs à la Wagner; for him, mood was all as far as the music was concerned. Take the opening xylophone patter: non-melodic, but vividly atmospheric, and more menacing when it appears again throughout its first act. When it came to his vocal writing, he was motivated less by flash or beauty than by authenticity: trying to adhere to the speech patterns of his native tongue, something which became reflected in his preference for short melodic motives rather than long singing lines. And yet, there’s plenty of aural beauty in “Jenůfa”: the jubilation of the title character, Števa, and the rest of the townspeople as they celebrate Števa’s being passed over for army service in Act 1; the ethereal nature of the string- and harp-laden music during Jenůfa’s prayer in Act 2; the menacing tam-tam strokes that close out Act 2 as the Kostelnička realizes the full horrifying magnitude of the crime she has committed.
“Jenůfa,” Act 1; Roberta Alexander (Jenůfa), Mark Baker (Števa), Anja Silja (Kostelnička), Philip Langridge (Laca)
But more than just its orchestral splendors and vocal invention, the beauty of “Jenůfa” lies in its profound moral and spiritual vision. As bleak as its story is, Janáček’s opera never feels depressing. Its gaze is too empathetic toward the complex emotions of its working-class characters to cast anyone as black-and-white heroes and villains. The Kostelnička has her reasons for killing Jenůfa’s baby, which she lays out in an aria just before she runs away with the infant in Act 2: “The baby’s the only obstacle, / a lifelong disgrace! / That would be a way of redeeming her life, / and it’s God who knows best how everything stands.” Laca is wrong to cut Jenůfa’s face at the end of Act 1, but considering Števa’s boorishness, we understand why he feels she deserves better. This Moravian village is rife with petty, small-minded jealousies among its inhabitants, but “Jenůfa” exudes tough-minded compassion rather than condescension.
This stands in stark contrast to the way public discourse in the U.S. turned during the recent presidential election and has only intensified in the aftermath. Even now, people on both sides of the political spectrum seem to be doing little more than pointing fingers at each other, or even, in the case of many Democrats, casting blame at those within their own party as they still try to figure out how they went disastrously wrong. With the ascension of a political figure who so effectively exploited the despair wide swathes of Americans felt toward the supposedly broken state of the country that they used their voting power to turn against what they viewed as the dangerous progressivism of the elites—now, more than ever, is a time for understanding, not demonization. If the election of Donald Trump cast an unflattering light on deep divisions, and if we can’t trust our leaders in power to heal those divisions, then it is up to us Americans to step up and be better people.
This is what “Jenůfa” shows us at the end: the power of compassion and forgiveness, which, in the title character’s case, has the power of spiritual transfiguration. Only she, empowered by her learning and her religious beliefs, is able to rise above the small-mindedness of the villagers surrounding her and grasp the inner psychological anguish of the woman that killed her child; she even earns a man’s undying devotion as a result of this act of empathy. Janáček, through Preissová’s words, offers us a vision of humanity as it could be. Sitting in that Metropolitan Opera audience on November 17, with the threats of Trump’s America hovering in my mind, bearing witness to this transfiguration onstage, that vision couldn’t help but feel more necessary than ever—a goal for both fellow artists and the many laypeople they’re trying to reach to strive for as we gear ourselves up for the next, rocky years. ¶