The audience at any Janacek opera must be ready to be appalled, watching persons acting in ways that are in truth no other than they ways they might have acted themselves; but they come back nevertheless because of the redemption Janacek unearths in the end, in the deepest and darkest places. Stark realism will afford only the truest of miracles.
Appropriately, then, the set of this new production is a stark white room furnished with only a simple metal table and a chair, elevated above the stage and framed in darkness. A woman in black has entered through a door in the rear and moves slowly to the right front looking out at the audience as if longing to be understood but having no delusions she will be. With so little by way of visual clues we can only assume she has been ushered into a doctor’s office and has bad news about a pregnancy. The wall on the rear slides to the right so that the door disappears and it is only an empty white wall but then continues to slide so as to reveal a breach from the left and Jenufa enters in a simple blood-red shift and heels, with her rosemary bush. Blood-red, sanitary white and the silent black of death, for the lady in black is merely a silent apparition during the first scenes.
Our view of the characters on the white stage in their monochrome costumes tends inevitably toward melodrama but then we watch how well this tendency is kept under control — how the art of the dramaturge is hiding art. The lady in black turns out to be the Stepmother, and it turns out that the Stepdaughter in red is the one who is pregnant. Her baby’s cap, the one thing brought back onto the stage from beneath the frozen river’s ice in Act Three, is also red. Again the simple decisions are packed with sense — the red of living love and the black of love that has died.
The Stepmother is a mysterious figure: she has become the sexton of the church and has been given the role of moral pillar by the community. In fact she is the second wife of the spendthrift second son of Grandmother Buryja, Steva’s younger brother Thomas, whom we do not meet. Only from the wedding song in the third act and the Stepmother’s staged reaction to it — a mounting revulsion — do we gather that she made some kind of mistake with this lout, the sort of mistake that would now make her so prudish as to disallow Jenufa to see Steve for a year because of his drunken behavior, ignorant as she is that Jenufa is already pregnant by him and needs him to marry her sooner. The Stepmother is the only woman in the opera who has no child of her own, only a stepdaughter — whence the title. And yet it is she that kills Jenufa’s baby thinking Jenufa can thus salvage her life by marrying Laca who truly loves her, rather than the older Buryja grandson Steva, his half brother.
Jenufa is the main character and the opera is named after her but the playwright had kept the stepmother in its title with a possessive pronoun. The main problem in the presentation of the story is therefore to maintain a balance between these two characters that in the end will tilt to Jenufa. She is the only character in the drama that does not change: she only loves and she only deepens. By the end, after Laca has defended her against the envious taunts of the mayor’s wife and the mob that supposes she killed the baby, we find there is only one person left who is worthy of her love, the one who loved her so much he cut her face. The plot tilts her way because the other pan has been emptied out. And now the back wall has disappeared, revealing a black beyond, and Jenufa closes the opera by telling Laca their love is is a good thing born as a miracle out of the dross of misguided passions; they turn away from the audience and begin to walk away from the audience, into a future they will illuminate with a truer love — the kind, Jenufa says, that comes from God.
Runnicles opened the prelude with a slower and more visceral pace than usual, and maintained this idiom, replacing the semi-autistic tenseness we have come to expect with a wilder and more reckless energy. This is the energy of Laca, the only life-loving energy in the story, and Hartmann’s powerful tenor brought this energy into song. The Stepmother’s role requires a lot of body language to express the mystery of what is going on inside her and the task was handled well by the dramaturge and by Larmore. The mayor and his wife and daughter were, I felt, crude and hapless rather than the competent hypocrites they are. The dressing scene and bridal song, so richly deserved by Jenufa, were done with special charm and beauty by Spaulding’s chorus. Kaune’s Jenufa and Runnicles’ orchestra succeeded every time to pull off those wonderful moments Janacek always rises to, those high ascents above reckless fray of the world to the re-centering vision of dignity and faith; and the audience was very pleased.