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Nightmare on the Prairie


by Leos Janácek, directed by Jonathan Miller
At Glimmerglass Opera, in a co-production with New York City Opera, Cooperstown, New York, July 29–August 29, 2006


Leos Janácek’s Jenufa is an opera so consciously and thoroughly of its own place that to uproot it might seem an act of violence. The production directed by Jonathan Miller, which opened recently at Glimmerglass Opera, transposes the action from a Moravian mill town under Hapsburg rule to the plains of Depression-era Nebraska. (The precise year is not specified, although the literal-minded may assume that since soldiers are being called up for conscription the time must be after Pearl Harbor.) The result, quite aside from its abundant, indeed overwhelming, musical pleasures—all the more overwhelming because the acoustics and intimate dimensions of the Glimmerglass theater create the impression that all barriers have been removed and that one is simply inside the opera—is a persuasive instance of expressive juxtaposition: two distinct worlds yoked together to yield an alternate and aesthetically convincing reality. It is a sort of rewriting of history. What if this quintessentially Czech opera of 1904 were really an American opera of the 1940s? The effect is anything but frivolous. To drop Jenufa into the middle of middle America provokes a chemical reaction which does interesting things both to Janácek’s opera and to America.

Based on Gabriela Preissová’s 1890 drama Her Stepdaughter,1 Janácek’s libretto is a model of efficacy, reducing to essential actions a complex narrative of village life and its multiple frustrations and hidden sufferings. Preissová’s play was ripped tabloid-style from a couple of local incidents in Moravia—a slighted lover slashing a girl’s face, a mother and daughter (not, as in play and opera, the mother alone) conspiring to kill the daughter’s illegitimate baby—and with its themes of infanticide, unwanted pregnancy, and male desire drifting into drunken indifference or boiling over into unintended brutality seems to have been designed to create as bleak a picture as possible of the choices available to women in the hill country of Moravia. At the center of the drama are two women—Jenufa and her stepmother, the Kostelnicka (that is, the village sacristan)—locked in conflict over Jenufa’s future. Briefly, the strict and censorious stepmother, not knowing that Jenufa is already pregnant by the ambitious young man Steva, forbids her to marry him because of his drunkenness. At the same time, Steva’s illegitimate half-brother Laca, who is in love with Jenufa, slashes her face in a fit of frustrated rage, with the aim of proving (quite successfully) that Steva will no longer desire her if her beauty is damaged.

The central action—the decision of the pious stepmother to protect her unmarried stepdaughter from scandal by murdering her baby—retains a distinctive place even in the rich catalog of operatic horrors precisely because it is so bare of melodramatic trappings as to seem not just plausible but actual. All these events are surrounded by an atmosphere of religiosity and folk tradition. There are prayers, blessings, dances, and a general sense of village life as a self-policed arena where sooner or later everyone’s secrets are likely to be exposed, and whose strictures no one—least of all a woman—can evade. Location is destiny.

Janácek’s fate seems outwardly to have been similarly tied to place. The son and grandson of village music teachers, he can be imagined as living consciously the myth of an art growing directly out of its birthplace, an art nurtured as devotedly as the rosemary plant that Jenufa waters in the conviction that all the happiness in the world depends on its flourishing. His early training in Prague, Leipzig, and Vienna had not made him less of a locally grounded musician, a very busy man in a place from which his fame was unlikely to spread. Settling in Brno, he established a large choir, founded a music conservatory, edited a musical journal that lasted for four years, and gathered the Moravian folk songs of which he would publish a collection of more than two thousand examples during the ten-year period of Jenufa‘s gestation. (He had internalized the musical language of those songs so completely that, as he made clear, he had no need to quote them directly in the scenes of village celebration, creating his own persuasive folk music.) At fifty, the year Jenufa opened in Brno, he was essentially unknown outside Moravia; only with the opera’s belated and highly successful Prague première in 1916 would he attain some slight degree of international celebrity.

The musical language of Jenufa grew quite literally out of fragments of local speech. Since the 1870s Janácek had been collecting what he called “speech-melodies” (nápevky). Talking with strangers, or simply eavesdropping on their conversations, he would transcribe isolated phrases in musical notation: “I greedily sought to capture every vibration of the voice…. In

speech-melody, I perceived the unfolding of internal, concealed processes.”2 The composer was persuaded that this method gave him a means of entry into the essence of another’s being. It had nothing to do with the words, he told a Prague literary journal a few months before his death: “I grasped the rise and fall of the notes!… As the person talked to me in a conventional conversation, I knew, I heard that, inside himself, the person wept.”3 His pronouncements on this theme can make him sound like another rhapsodic nineteenth-century theosophist—“The melodies of speech are an expression of the comprehensive state of being and of all the phases of mental activity that arise from that state”—but he proceeded more like a naturalist. Collecting speech-melodies as a botanist might mushrooms in the forest, or as his contemporary (and fellow Moravian) Sigmund Freud collected dreams and slips of the tongue, Janácek hit upon a virtually scientific means of achieving an end—the revelation of what remains after every layer of concealment has been removed, nothing less than the soul itself—that would otherwise seem a matter of mystical intuition.4

Given such a method there was a way to make opera authentically realistic, not only in its settings and stories but in its music; singing could be not a heightening of human speech but a return to its origins. Through whatever dramatic decorum the plot might develop, the characters by this reckoning would already stand revealed from the moment their voices were heard. It took Janácek almost ten years—between 1895 and 1904—to develop this concept to his satisfaction in Jenufa. In the early phases of the process he could still be shaken up by the aesthetic novelty of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades. By the end he was writing vocal music that didn’t sound quite like anything that had come before. A century later Jenufa can still seem unsettling in the transparency with which its characters seem to be revealed in music, each a self-contained force field bonding or colliding with other force fields. Each is made available at full strength but without exaggeration; everything happens in such a matter-of-fact way that opera is made to feel like the natural human condition, not a representation of life but life itself.

The inner melodies Janácek was so intent on seizing hold of were not those of language in general but specifically of Czech. (“His operas,” Milan Kundera has written, “are the most beautiful homage ever paid the Czech language.”5 ) For a patriot like the composer this was an essential issue; in his choral work Kantor Halfar (1906) a professor hangs himself because he has been forbidden to teach in Czech. For Janácek, to write the music latent in the native language is to achieve an authenticity beyond counterfeiting: here place and blood, art and politics converge to acknowledge the genius of the local, of customary rituals and innermost beliefs, down to the smallest gestures and intonations. Yet the more lovingly Janácek recreates folk motifs and speech patterns, the more deeply we are drawn in this opera into the horror of the local. Jenufa is the musical description of all that is closed in, handed down, bound by custom, and ceaselessly exposed to the curiosity of neighbors who never go away: the human world as ancient backwater, a skein of obligations and superstitions in which any new life struggles against the odds to assert its needs and desires.

Jenufa’s rosemary plant, the one she nurtured so tenderly, will be eaten by the worms planted in secret by her resentful admirer Laca, in the merest prelude to more outrageous acts of violence. What is growing in the heart of the opera, in fact, is an act of murder so rooted in music that by the time we get to that point in the middle of Act II when the baby’s murder has been irrevocably conceived, we have come to a place where there is no escape from the horror of the melody that Janácek has all along been weaving. Whatever will happen could not have been avoided because it started long before the opera began. It is true that this is not a finale but a pivot point; there is a third act in which the opera will manage to find at least a hint—not more than a few bars, really—of something like redemption. But there is no avoiding the lingering sense that through the music alone, we have been taken through some kind of hell, a hell constructed entirely of human feelings.


The place where we begin, in Jonathan Miller’s production, is not precisely like hell; Isabella Bywater’s set is almost like a vision of home (on the range or in the little house on the prairie) as it was imagined in a range of American paintings and movies, novels, and musicals, back when it seemed important to reaffirm—or to invent—a genuinely native tradition. The farmhouse whose façade occupies the center of the stage, with its front porch shaded from the brutal midday sun, and a disused harrow lying in a field at the rear, might be the center of a Grant Wood painting. The effect is indeed tableau-like, the stage space a flat horizontal canvas in which people are posed as rigorously as if by Edward Hopper: the girl leaning wistfully on the railing, the grandmother (she might be Jane Darwell in The Grapes of Wrath) seated peeling her potatoes, the young man (Laca) off to the right restlessly whittling.

Miller has indicated that his starting point was the Czech immigrant settlers of Willa Cather’s My Ántonia, along with the WPA photographs of Dorothea Lange, but his chosen setting and any number of details of stage movement and costuming evoke a panorama not just of American geography but of American aesthetics—a panorama that would encompass Grant Wood and Willa Cather, the films of King Vidor and the choreography of Agnes de Mille—and that might ordinarily have been set to the music of Aaron Copland if not Richard Rodgers. Is it not in just such a place, and in just such a light, that we might expect to hear someone singing, from the back of the farmhouse, “Oh, what a beautiful mornin’”?

  1. 1

    This is in fact the Czech title of the opera. Jenufa, the international title, was created by Max Brod for his German version.

  2. 2

    Quoted by Annette Nubbemeyer in “Leos Janácek’s Opera,” her liner notes to Jenufa (Erato, 2003).

  3. 3

    See Janácek’s Uncollected Essays on Music, edited and translated by Mirka Zemanová (London: Marion Boyars, 1989); quoted in Robin Holloway, On Music (Continuum, 2003), p. 345.

  4. 4

    At least one scholar, Paul Christensen of the University of California–Davis, has suggested that Janácek’s transcriptions were not necessarily strictly faithful to the rhythms and intonations of Czech; even in the act of transcribing he was already composing. Janácek himself compared the transcriptions to preparatory sketches, like nude drawings, not ends in themselves.

  5. 5

    Milan Kundera, Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts(HarperCollins, 1995), p. 189.

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