Anguish Becomes Grace, in Janacek's 'Jenufa'

Overview
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Audio SelectionsThe StoryWho's Who

Jenufa is a young, single woman living in a small town with her stepmother, who is known as Kostelnicka. Jenufa has fallen in love with Steva, the handsome owner of the local saw mill, and she's pregnant with Steva's child. As the ACT ONE begins, Jenufa is near the mill, anxiously waiting for Steva to return from a meeting with army recruiters. She's hoping to marry Steva immediately, but if he's drafted, they'll have to delay the wedding and everyone will find out about her pregnancy. Also hanging around the mill is Laca, Steva's half-brother. He's less handsome and has always harbored feelings for Jenufa, though he tries to keep those feelings under wraps.

When the mill foreman annouces that Steva hasn't been drafted after all, Jenufa is relieved. But her good spirits turn sour when Steva and his friends, including a group of flashy young women, show up drunk. Their raucous celebration comes to a crashing halt when Kostelnicka arrives. She's the type of stern matriarch you don't want to mess with, and she harshly declares that she won't allow Steva to marry Jenufa until he stays sober for a full year.

The couple is left alone and Steva brags about all the pretty girls who flirt with him. When he leaves, Laca tells Jenufa that Steva only stays with her because she's beautiful. Laca continues to taunt Jenufa, speculating about what his sharp knife could do to her rosy cheeks. Awkwardly, and impulsively, Laca tries to kiss Jenufa. When she struggles with him, the knife he was holding slashes her face. People run in to help, and the mill foreman accuses Laca of using his knife on purpose.

In ACT TWOmonths have passed, and we now find Jenufa in hiding, in Kostelnicka's cottage. She has given birth to a baby boy, but Kostelnicka has told the villagers that Jenufa has been away, in Vienna.

Kostelnicka gives Jenufa a drugged drink to make her sleep. Alone, Kostelnicka ponders what to do about their situation. She says everything would be better without the baby.

Steva arrives and Kostelnicka begs him to marry Jenufa. He says that since her face was cut, he has lost any love he had for her, and that he is now engaged to Karolka, the mayor's daughter. The normally aloof Kostelnicka begs him to marry Jenufa, and take responsibility for his child. But Steva refuses to even look at the baby. He calls Kostelnicka a sorceress, and runs from the house.

Kostelnicka is distraught. How can she save Jenufa's reputation, and preserve their standing in the village? The problem is the baby. Just as she envisions killing the child and throwing him at Steva's feet, Laca knocks on the door. He knows nothing about Jenufa's circumstances, and is hoping to persuade Kostelnicka to let him marry Jenufa. Kostelnicka says that marrying Jenufa would now be a true test of his love, and then tells him the whole story. When he asks her how she could possibly expect him to accept Steva's child, Kostelnicka panics and tells him the infant has died.

Laca leaves and two intense scenes follow, one for Kostelnicka and one for Jenufa. After a struggle with her conscience, Kostelnicka convinces herself to give the baby back to God. She wraps the child up, and heads to the frozen mill stream. "When the spring melts the ice away," she says, "there will be no trace of him."

With Kostelnicka gone, Jenufa wakes up in a stupor, still drugged from the sleeping medication. She works herself into a frenzy when she can't find her baby or her stepmother. In her anguish, she kneels to offer a prayer to the Virgin Mary.

As Jenufa is finishing her prayer, Kostelnicka returns from the river. She tells Jenufa that she has been delirious with fever for two days, and during that time, her baby died. Jenufa's prayer turns to an expression of stunned grief and overwhelming loneliness. Kostelnicka then tells her about Steva's plans to marry someone else, and advises Jenufa to accept Laca's love.

When Laca arrives with a proposal, Jenufa says her life must be at an end. Who would want her now? Laca says he does. As the superstitious Kostelnicka blesses the couple, the winter wind noisily blows open a window, sending it crashing to the floor. Kostelnicka sees this as an omen, calling it "the icy hand of death, tearing at my heart."

As ACT THREE begins two months have gone by, and townspeople are gathering at Kostelnicka's house for the wedding ceremony. The mayor and his wife arrive, along with their daughter Karolka and her fiance, Steva. Village girls show up with flowers, and a song. Grandmother Buryjovka blesses the wedding couple, and just as Kostelnicka is prepared to add her own words, excited voices are heard outside.

Little Jano runs in, saying the body of a baby has been found in the river. The mayor runs out to investigate. He soon reappears carrying the things the baby was wearing, and Jenufa recognizes her own baby's clothing. The villagers quickly accuse Jenufa of murder, but Kostelnicka comes forward with a confession -- admitting that she was responsible, and that she acted alone. "I took the child to the river," she says, "and pushed it through a hole in the ice." As Kostelnicka is led away, Jenufa forgives her.

With the wedding guests gone, Jenufa and Laca are alone. She expects him to leave, as well. "Surely," she says, "you see now that my wretched life can never be linked with yours." But Laca says all that matters to him is that the two of them stay together, and Jenufa declares that the love she now feels means that God has finally smiled on them.