Opera Profile: Janacek’s Jenufa

By Logan Martell

First premiering on Jan. 21, 1904, “Jenufa” is adapted from a play by Gabriela Preissova titled “Jeji pastorkyna” meaning “Her Stepdaughter.” The opera is noted for its bleak story, involving jealousy, deceit, and infanticide. Janáček dedicated this work to his daughter Olga, who died less than a year prior.

Short Plot Summary

In a Moravian village, there is a Grandmother named Buryja who owns the mill. Though she has had two sons, who themselves fathered children, her sons and their wives have all died except for the second wife of the second son. Her eldest grandchild, Steva, is set to inherit the mill on her death, much to the jealousy of his younger brother Laca. This bond is strained further due to Laca’s unrequited love for Jenufa, their cousin, who is in love with Steva. As Jenufa, Buryja, and Laca wait for Steva to return home one evening, they wonder if he may have been drafted into the army. When Laca has the mill foreman sharpen a knife for him, the foreman assures them that Steva has not been drafted, to Jenufa’s relief and Laca’s anger. All but Jenufa depart and shortly after Steva arrives with a party of soldiers, who have been drinking and philandering. When Steva forces Jenufa to dance with him, her stepmother Kostelnicka quickly intervenes; she forbids Steva from marrying Jenufa unless he can remain sober for one whole year. When Jenufa and Steva are alone finally, she implores him to return her love. Unaware that Jenufa is pregnant with his child, Steva rebukes her and leaves. When Laca returns and slanders Steva, Jenufa remains faithful in her older cousin. Infuriated, Laca says that Steva would not so much as look upon her were it not for her rosy cheeks, using his knife to slice her across the face.

Several months later, winter has come and Jenufa’s child has been born. Her face is still scarred but she remains happy thanks to her baby. One night, Kostelnicka confronts Steva so that he may take responsibility for his child. Although Steva agrees to support Jenufa and their child financially, he insists his fatherhood must remain a secret because he is now engaged to the beautiful daughter of the mayor. Kostelnicka tries to reconcile Laca with Jenufa so that she may have a husband. Though Laca is still in love with Jenufa, he is repulsed by the thought of raising Steva’s child, and so the Kostelnicka tells him that the child is dead. When he leaves, the Kostelnicka is forced to murder Jenufa’s baby; she bundles it and takes it out of the house with her. When she returns, she tells Jenufa that the child died while she slept, devastating the young mother. When Laca comforts her and proposes marriage, Kostelnicka assures herself that what she has done was for the best.

Jenufa and Laca ready to marry one day in the spring. All seems joyous as a wedding chorus sings until the sound of a scream breaks the festivities. The body of an infant has been found in the melted ice of the stream by the mill. When Jenufa cries out that the baby is hers, the villagers gathered believe her to be responsible for the murder. To spare the life of her stepdaughter, the Kostelnicka reveals her part in the surrounding events. Though Jenufa comes to forgive her, the Kostelnicka is taken to jail. Jenufa wishes to break off the engagement but Laca again comforts her, promising that the two will spend their remaining days together.

Watch and Listen

The performance from the Gran Theatre del Liceu is historical for bringing together Nina Stemme and Eva Marton.


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