October 18, 2023
Get to know: Janáček's Jenůfa
Many operas owe their greatness in large part to the presence of an entire community onstage. That’s certainly true of Leoš Janáček’s unforgettable Jenůfa, one of the 20th century’s great masterpieces. Yes, the protagonists are Jenůfa and Kostelnička, but their tragedy unfolds within a village populated by extraordinary individual characters. Janacek uses them all to create a world — a drama that truly lives in every moment.
Jenůfa is expecting Števa’s child, and she hopes that he’ll marry her. His half-brother, Laca, who’s in love with Jenůfa, slashes her cheek out of jealousy. Kostelnička, Jenůfa’s foster-mother, a highly respected figure in the village, fears the shame if the child’s illegitimacy is discovered. She implores Števa to marry Jenůfa, but he’s engaged to the mayor’s daughter. Kostelnička then goes to desperate measures, leading to catastrophe for herself and despair for Jenůfa — but the opera ends on a hopeful note, with a true catharsis for the audience.
This opera’s 1903 premiere brought an already-mature Janáček the recognition he’d long deserved. He built his score by responding in depth to the music of his native Moravia. You’ll hear irresistible, folk-like dance tunes, often in contrast with powerful drama. For the heroine, Janáček offers achingly beautiful lyricism, which we can hear throughout her role. Kostelnička’s hair-raising monologue, as well as the magnificent final scene for Jenůfa and Laca, show that Janáček could also produce full-blown, soaring climaxes worthy of anything you’ll find in Puccini or Strauss.
Lyric has scored an extraordinary casting coup by bringing together two of today’s most phenomenal dramatic sopranos. Sweden’s Nina Stemme, a sensational Elektra in her 2019 Lyric debut, has made her formidable reputation singing many of the most demanding roles in the repertoire. Kostelnička presents terrific opportunities to show her unique vocal beauty and power, as well as her gifts as an actress. In the title role is Norway’s greatest gift to opera in recent decades, Lise Davidsen, whose rise to universal acclaim has been thrilling to witness. In her eagerly awaited Lyric debut, her sumptuous voice will exhilarate audiences, just as her luminous humanity will touch every heart.
Joining these exceptional leading ladies will be two outstanding tenors in their company debuts: Pavel Černoch (a native of Brno, Janáček’s home town) as Laca and Richard Trey Smagur as Števa.
Making his debut in the Lyric pit will be the exciting Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša, internationally recognized as a master of Janáček’s music. A triumph at London’s Royal Opera House, Claus Guth’s production is a vision of striking originality, revealing the tense atmosphere that pervades Jenůfa’s village. The interactions Guth creates between characters are “piercingly drawn,” noted the Daily Telegraph, and the production “will surely become a classic.”