Heaven help me, I just went to the National Theater for the first time on Friday. What possesed me to wait so long? I can even get rush tickets! Well, there is too much music to be seen, and it wasn't until a chance confession of the night's activities that I found a willing friend who would go with me (never too late!), so I hope to take in more before leaving. Friday I went with the mom and we saw Janacek's Jenufa.
I'd read the synopsis and was little impressed with the plotline revolving around Jenufa being "ruined" by the twin curses of nature: beauty and unplanned pregnancy. Gah. Well, the story goes something like this: Jenufa is courted by two non-blood relatives in their small Moravian town and falls for the braggard, while the other, Laca, is overtaken by jealousy and cuts her face, deforming her and ending the braggard's shallow love. Meanwhile, she has the braggard's bastard child in secret. Jenufa pines away for her lot in life, finally submitting to marriage to the
violent cousin out of fear of the town shame. Sort of.
Zzz. Women's lives are a curse. Zzz.
But what makes the opera interesting is the mother, Kostelnicka. Jenufa's Czech title is "Její pastorkyna," (her step-daughter) which seems a more accurate description of the 2.5 hour long work, which is more a mother/daughter psychodrama than anything else. Throughout the thing I kept thinking about how the mother was the real powerhouse of the work, but in the end I've come to see Jenufa's ambivalent character as the weirdly modern on in this bizarre and great opera.
Kostelnicka is the churchkeeper's widow, a woman of high ethics dressed in stern black, unsmiling. A true diva, she turns to god to render her word supreme and the town shakes with fear of her. Števa, the cad, calls her a witch during their confontation, which comes at the crucial moment when Kostelnicka tries to get him to acknowledge the child, wed Jenufa, and save her own perfect reputation. Which, he doesn't. So she...drowns the baby! In the winter! It freezes in the ice! No one knows!
In her aria, which was one of those 20th century things with full orchestra that surges beneath and beside rather than stay subdued, she hints at the terrible truth - it is not Jenufa's reputation that she cares about, but her own. She is meddling in fate, playing god with the love, happiness, and life of others and all so she can save her public face. She is blind with rage for some distant wrong done by Števa's father, and with the moral absolute of Jenufa's sin. (It seems so distant to me, and in the moment of her aria I seriously just kept thinking 'Thank you to my feminist foremothers and fathers for rendering this feeling ancient for me' - not so long ago did mothers have the shame-laden prefix "unwed" or "single"). In this way I guess Kostelnicka is something of a witch - she conciously manipulates the world to get her way, without the knowledge or consent of those around her. She uses her power, driven by unquestioned ethics, for evil.
And so the dramatic irony unfolds to the unbearably sad moment of the wedding day (see, Laca would only take her if the baby was dead so Kostelnicka obliged). Jenufa is dressed in simple grey while the town is in folk costume. The bride and groom talk about 'enduring.' They stammer, they look to the back of the stage. It's almost as bad as being at a real wedding.
And then...someone brings in the ice baby, loosened from the spring thaw. A waking horror. Everyone freaks out, and the shit hits the fan in true third act glory. So Kostelnicka confesses to save the Jenufa from the charge of murder, and the opera ends with the couple trudging into the distance.
So what strikes me about the thing is that Jenufa is really a story about forgiveness, the most difficult of human choices. Jenufa, for better or worse, forgives Laca, who has a dramatic arc big enough to seem like he won't be an abuser again (in real life it doesn't often work this way).They muddle through, their love a burdened, mature, and "real" thing, which is why I guess Janacek was praised for his modern storyline. But Kostelnicka, her heart harbors some deep anger and with this she tries to undo everyone. She sees everyone's injustice, but not her own until the guilt (in true operatic spirit) eats away at her body. It is a hardness that never ends, and it is as difficult to watch as it is thrilling to listen to.The men are rather less complex, really more like small town stereotypes whose old-fashioned morals drive these women to desperate measures.They are the law and the women the subjects of the law.
But...just as that ice thaws, there is some hint of what comes for women in Janacek's work: the mill wheels turn, the wedding dress stands sharp against custom, and there is a moment of tenderness in one of Jenufa's aria that suggests she is actually happier with the baby than she was with either man. And mother, she is playing, and ruined, by some rules that are about to be antiquated.