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Nightmare on the Prairie

Jenufa

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

1.

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.

2.

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’”?

I don’t mean to suggest that Miller alludes heavy-handedly to any given source—recognizable patterns form and dissolve on the stage in an instant—but that one is unstoppably assailed by a whole region of associations. These are richly fused into a kind of essence of midcentury American art: American art, that is, in its self-consciously “national” mode, determined to express the soul of farmland and prairie and the wide open spaces, and the emotions—including frustration and loneliness and stoic endurance—that go with them. It is a rather different mood, superficially, than the centuries-old, tradition-bound, superstition-addled atmosphere of a remote Moravian village. The claustrophobia of the Old World with its provincial hierarchies and walls of inherited silence gives way to the new in which people start from scratch in more or less empty spaces. The American setting carries with it at least the memory of optimism, a sense that at one point it seemed possible to begin again.

The initial iconic stillness as the three characters sing their isolated opening statements—the passage in Jenufa that most resembles traditional opera in its division into separate numbers—gives way throughout the first act to lithe and light-footed movement, without ever losing the painterly effect so clearly established in the beginning. The most powerful visual moments are fleeting and appear to melt almost as soon as they form. When Jenufa is seen inside the house, framed in the doorway in profile as Laca expresses his frustrated longing for her, the gap between interior and exterior seems like a gap between worlds. Or, in the second act, we see Jenufa starting up in bed in her back room mirroring her stepmother staring toward the door through which Steva has just stormed off, again a way of showing the characters united and separated in the same image. Miller has chosen to make more, visually, of such delicate conjunctions than of the most obviously theatrical moments. When Laca slashes Jenufa’s cheek at the end of Act I, it occurs just inside the house, beyond our view, and in Act II Jenufa is, again, just out of range at the moment when she learns that her baby is dead. The result is to make the opera even less melodramatic than it already was.

Within the mural-like frame, with neither depth nor elevation, emphasizing the flatness of the prairie, the singers move in shifting horizontal designs, reconfiguring into momentary pairs and triads, with a capacity for rapid displacement and abrupt distancing that offers constant counter-rhymes to the always startling transitions of the music. It might be said that Janácek with great foresight planted the mise-en-scène of his opera in the score itself—dictating a pattern of movement commensurate with the music’s twists and intrusions and lacerating outbursts, its constant shifting of attention from one character to another, its ability to keep two or more quite different scenes going at the same time—or at least Miller has managed with great precision to create that impression.

It is not only a short opera but, at least in its first act, it hustles the spectator along almost faster than he is capable of going. The clanking repetitive xylophone figure—no longer, in this production, connoting the millwheel, which is nowhere to be found—takes on the quality of a warning bell sounding in the empty sky, a harsher cousin to the accelerating percussive clatter that marks the beginning of a kabuki performance. Even without any radical change in setting or visual concept there would be, in this opera, a fundamental cognitive opposition between what we see on stage and what we hear from the orchestra. We see people in small-scale settings where only the occasional noise of drunken revelry intrudes on their intimate communications; but we hear an orchestral storm, shot through with moans and jangles, horn blasts and percussive interjections, that ought by all rights to startle them out of the trance of their daily existence.

Under Stewart Robertson’s direction the Glimmerglass orchestra brought to bear the right measure of urgent force: sometimes shockingly so, and enough at certain moments of extreme turbulence to put the singers on the edge of audibility, but in a way that seemed dramatically appropriate. The orchestra pit is the world in which Jenufa is really set; its rhythms understand the characters better than the characters themselves, and its phrases complete what they can often only deliver in fragmentary form. The orchestra is the setting of the other opera, within which the vocal one takes place.

An additional effect of the American setting—perhaps unintended, but nonetheless inevitable—might be called the Pierre Menard effect. Just as Borges’s mythical modern French writer created an altogether different work by writing Don Quixote with exactly the same words, a work of another time and with a different significance,6 so at moments it became possible to imagine Janácek’s score as the work of a hitherto unknown American composer of the 1930s or 1940s, who would have invented for this setting and this era a unique idiom, of jagged power, startling contrasts, and occasionally jazz-like surges, that could only have been American. If such an American composer did not exist, then he must be invented, and this is one way of doing it. Such moments of defamiliarizing can turn the supposedly familiar into something never before heard, making each note sound different even as it remains exactly the same.

3.

Setting and historical period begin to become irrelevant as the opera, in its second movement, moves toward its essence: the drama of two women in a sealed enclosure, locked in obscure and mortal combat to see who will dominate, who will survive, who in effect will be the principal character of the opera. The stepmother has kept Jenufa sequestered in the house until she gives birth, the window curtains closed to keep the girl’s presence hidden; the baby is a week old when the act begins. The period of time that separates the first and second act—five months in the libretto, and more like four years in the composition of the opera—is an extraordinarily expressive absence. That absence is really the center of the opera: the fact of Jenufa’s having given birth in secret, in the dark, as if birth were the ultimate horror. The stepmother is the woman for whom it is, precisely, the ultimate horror: the final evidence of what men in their recklessness have done to women. In her deep unforgiving rage the stepmother might well echo a cry from Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology: “Sex is the curse of life!” Seeing in the drunken Steva the replica of her own drunken brute of a husband, the stepmother seeks to protect Jenufa from him, in the tone that comes naturally to her: “If you don’t obey me, God will punish you harshly!”

The stepmother is suffused with the love that strangles, the piety that wants to poison life in the bud—not for herself but in a spirit of self-sacrifice. The second act belongs to her, almost. If it belonged to her entirely there would be no opera. But everything extraordinary about the opera is embodied in the series of monologues in which she regrets that God did not answer her prayers and kill the baby, and rages at Steva after learning that he plans to marry the mayor’s daughter. She longs to throw the dead baby at his feet, determines finally to kill it while envisioning the social punishment that will follow, and wishing (after she has returned from drowning the baby) insanity on Steva’s bride-to-be.

The extreme dramatic economy of the second act verges on controlled savagery. What controls it is the presence of Jenufa, who between the stepmother’s monologues—at the very point when she is offstage murdering the baby—comes into her own alone on stage, calling out after a disturbing dream, taking advantage of nightfall to peer out the window, panicking when she finds that the baby is missing, praying to a picture of the Virgin. It is the only time she is alone in the entire opera, the only time we can contemplate her in isolation from her oppressive circumstances, and it is a kind of sublime protest, an obliterating cry of pain which is nonetheless all that stands in opposition to what the stepmother has come to represent. In a moment the stepmother will return and tell her that the baby died of natural causes. Even while this is unfolding it seems improbable that such events can be so baldly depicted on stage.

The entire act is indeed an event of improbable intensity. The necessary function of the third act will be to find some way of recovering from the second act. As the stage is given over to the terrible knot of fear and love and self-destructiveness that both unites and separates the two women, whatever there was of village liveliness and workaday normality in the first act becomes like the memory of another opera. The sealed room is the place where, finally, there is nowhere to go, where the bad things happen that will never be spoken of. In the Glimmerglass production it is a distorted space, tilted askew, defined most persuasively by the cheap blotched wallpaper of deathly yellowish hue, the rickety piano on which Jenufa hits, distractedly, a single key, and the black stove to which the stepmother is repeatedly drawn as if in search of something to warm her inward chill. It is the American nightmare of a space from which the possibility of any communal life has been shut out and where people are condemned to face themselves—a setting for a horror movie psycho to meditate on childhood trauma, or for a cultist’s deprogramming—where two people can stand in the same room with miles of isolation between them. To see it decked out for a wedding in the third act does not erase the earlier memory.

Within this space Maria Kanyova as Jenufa and Elizabeth Byrne as the stepmother were able to demonstrate how thoroughly they possessed or were possessed by these characters. In the brilliant clarity of her singing Kanyova never lost the melodic line in Janácek’s fragmented, interrupted, repeating phrases, but for all the plaintive beauty of her tone there was more than suffering and resignation. Her Jenufa was anything but passive—instead there was a sense of ferocious strength in the face of successive catastrophes, and a sincerity lucid rather than naive. She needed that strength to hold up against Elizabeth Byrne’s relentless incarnation of the stepmother as a demon of dissatisfaction, frozen on the outside and wracked by tremors within, a performance of contained self-wounding fury fully up to the role’s punishing requirement to begin at an emotional peak and keep going from there. Watching her I was reminded most forcefully not of operas I have seen but of some people I have known, and not under the happiest circumstances.

In the third act, as staged here, the Czech realities of the libretto were allowed to reemerge in the form of immigrants doing things—or aspiring to do things—the way they were done in the old country. Nothing could be more appropriate to the abortive wedding celebration of Laca and Jenufa, with its attempts to stir up joy through an appeal to tradition—the mayor’s visit, the dance, the grandmother’s blessing—before the festivities are interrupted by the discovery of the murdered child. It hardly matters, in the end, where exactly we are, because that place has been destroyed by events. The pious stepmother is now a prisoner, the married couple are outcasts.

There is a question of how much may be retrieved from this desolation by the brief final passages—Jenufa’s forgiveness of her stepmother, and her acceptance of Laca’s love in the face of ostracism. If there is a glow of redemption to be found here, it is certainly a muted one; one would not want to bet too much on the future happiness of Jenufa and Laca, and the rigor of Janácek’s characterizations would forbid any kind of facile happy ending. But the fragility of the hope makes it all the more moving. Miller’s production suggests this through a lighting effect that evokes, at least to my eye, an imaginary film by King Vidor or Frank Borzage, some late product of the silent era in which the possibility of estranged lovers reuniting after a disaster would be conveyed by nothing more than an artfully suggested sunset.

  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.

  6. 6

    Being, somehow, Cervantes, and arriving thereby at the Quixote—that looked to Menard less challenging (and therefore less interesting) than continuing to be Pierre Menard and coming to the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard.” See “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” in Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions (Viking, 1998), p. 91.

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