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, 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 …