Anguish Becoming Grace, in Janacek's 'Jenufa'

WOO-1308-jenufa-300If you only knew operas from reading their stories on the printed page -- without listening to the music -- the world of non-comic opera might seem like a uniformly dark and dreadful place. Just think of all the operas that feature betrayal, emotional anguish and violent death as key elements.

But in any opera, the written story is only part of the picture. Add great music to that story, and you often wind up with a drama in which anguish and violence are transformed, becoming the means of profound and truly beautiful expressions of the human condition.

There are plenty of examples, ranging from the straightforward, verismo operas we often think of as guilty pleasures, to the complex dramas of Mozart, Verdi and Strauss. And we've got one of the best of them all right here.

Janacek's Jenfua revolves around one of the worst crimes portrayed in any opera, the drowning of a newborn infant in an icy river. It's an act driven by narrow mindedness and cowardice -- but also by love. And remarkably, the overall theme of the opera is forgiveness. When the title character's child is murdered by her own stepmother, Jenufa reacts not with calls for vengeance, but with tender absolution -- set to some of Janacek's most radiant music.

What's also remarkable is the unique role the opera played in its composer's life and career. Janacek may have been music's ultimate late bloomer. He was about 40, and still obscure, when he started work on a drama he called Her Stepdaughter. He kept plugging away at it for the next ten years. In 1904, when Janáček was 50, the piece premiered at a small theater in Brno, where it had a modest success -- doing little to expand the composer's reputation.

Finally, the year after Janacek turned 60, the opera earned a major production, in Prague. It was a sensation. Before long, it was translated into German and performed in both Vienna and Berlin. Suddenly, Janacek was an international star, and he seemed to find new creative life.

During the last decade or so before his death, at age 74, Janacek wrote the popular "Sinfonietta," his famous Glagolitic Mass, two major string quartets and an entire body of operas, including Katya Kabanova, The Makropuolos Case and The Cunning Little Vixen. And the drama that got it all started was Her Stepdaughter, the opera we now know as Jenufa.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us Janacek's Jenfua from the Zurich Opera House in Switzerland. Soprano Kristine Opolais stars in the title role, with soprano Michaela Martens as Jenufa's stepmother Kostelnicka. The performance is led by conductor Fabio Luisi, in his first production as the Zurich Opera's new music director.