Jenůfa marked Leoš Janáček’s definitive breakthrough as a composer of music theatre, a genre in which he used speech melody as “the most authentic expression of the soul”. Even though traditional folklore clearly provided inspiration for this opera, a blend of romanticism and modernity, Janáček wrote a score that was ahead of its time. La Monnaie’s conductor-in-chief Ludovic Morlot will wield the baton in his second opera this season.
Why did you choose Janáček, why Jenůfa?
Jenůfa is on my personal top-ten list of favourite operas! It is original, complex and fascinating music. In my opinion Janáček was ahead of his time, and I regard him as one of the forerunners of modernism, like Debussy. Jenůfa can be seen as his first real opera – the first that met with success – but it is a very dramatic work. And it is also a very attractive opera because of the main theme: jealousy, both amorous and material. That powerful, universal theme – jealousy that afflicts families – makes Jenůfa an opera that can easily be transferred to a different era as well as a very accessible work.
It’s a very harsh story though.
Yes, but the opera world loves harsh stories! They contain strong symbols and so people recognize themselves in them.
And on a musical level?
Musically there are fewer points of recognition, but more than in many of Janáček’s other compositions. This work contains much previously written music, especially in the first act, which he wrote five years before the other two acts. The work was written in the years marked by the break with romanticism and the advent of twentieth-century modernism. Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is an example of a key work in that radical transition period. Jenůfa almost coincides with it. Janáček composed by placing one motif next to another, rather than relying on a musical development, yet the sound is still turned towards the late nineteenth century.
We know that Jenůfa had a turbulent genesis. Generally speaking, Janáček had difficulty making his breakthrough as a composer of opera.
He was better known for his teaching and his ethnographic research. He had tremendous trouble getting Jenůfa staged in Prague for the first time. Only after the tireless mediation of friends and acquaintances, and after he had given permission for the score to be revised did the director of the National Theatre in Prague, Kovařovic, agree to put on Jenůfa, twelve years after its première in Brno.
It is sometimes said that Jenůfa is Janáček’s most ‘Moravian’ opera. What evidence is there in this opera of his study of folk music?
It is most apparent in the chorus passages and the dance scenes. What fascinates me is the analogy between the rhythm of the music and that of the language – which was extremely important to Janáček. (An exponent who doesn’t know the language is in danger of missing certain nuances, which is why I decided to surround myself with a team that can provide this input.) That analogy makes the rhythm in Janáček’s music unique. You find it occasionally in Martinů’s work, and sometimes also with Dvorák, but with Janáček the rhythmic discourse is directly linked to the language. And that brings us even closer to Moravian and Czech folklore. Actually that jolting rhythm sometimes makes his scores difficult to perform. What is more, the composer sought to produce writing both for the orchestra and for the voice that is quite ‘stretched’ in terms of range. In a way the harmonies in his music are very modernistic. That applies in particular to the succession of chords, because – as is widely known - Janáček preferred to juxtapose short motifs rather than develop them at length. I recently had the good fortune to perform a Dvorák symphony with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Their very articulated playing, with the same strong, short accents you also hear in the Czech language, really surprised me! And it also revealed another dimension of Czech music: lightness and clarity, between a ‘classic’ articulation and a modern approach.
But for Janáček modernism was not an objective in itself, was it?
No, once again it was bound up with folk music. One often forgets just how modern folklore is in its writing, from a rhythmic, harmonic and melodic point of view. Folkloric material can seem complex because it departs from the usual format and harmonic framework of the writing. But the complexity is largely the result of recording an oral tradition in a script that does not lend itself to it. Consequently, the complexity conceals a return to simplicity. In the choruses, for example, there are some quite daring passages both rhythmically and harmonically, whereas it is actually going back to basics.
So rather than situate Janáček between folklore and modernism, we should talk about modernism ‘through’ folklore?
Yes, exactly. It has more to do with a ‘transformation’ of basic material. Perhaps in Western Europe we don’t have that instinctive understanding of Czech music, of its language. But the idea of ‘recognition’ (of a certain order or disorder) in music also applies to other nations. You know, nationalism in music...
For this new production you chose the 1908 version which was published by John Tyrrell and Charles Mackerras. Why?
This 1908 version, which exists thanks to the painstaking reconstruction work carried out by Tyrrell and Mackerras, has acquired a certain authority since it contains so many possible revisions to the score by Janáček himself. We can now be sure about what the first version was like, the one performed at the première in Brno in 1904. I am less interested in the later versions. They were not really influenced by Janáček himself, for the Czech conductor and composer Karel Kovařovic had rewritten the score for the performance in Prague in 1916. It is very interesting that we can now consult the 1904 version, which contains more detail, but the 1908 version has a beautiful structure which works well, and strong cohesion, which I find very pertinent. The story ends rather suddenly, rather like in a Hollywood script! You can easily imagine a sequel to the opera: what sort of life awaits Jenůfa and Laca? Will Števa and Karolka marry? The end is both very unusual and magnificent – it is full of light and seems to hold the prospect of something... A whole world existed before this opera, and you can also imagine a whole world after it. In the play by Gabriela Preissová on which Janáček’s libretto was based, the characters’ family tree is very complex. But in the opera you have no difficulty understanding who is who and what the relationship is between the various characters. The story that precedes it makes the opera even more fascinating, though it is already powerful stuff. Here, too, I find that you can appreciate Jenůfa instinctively and immediately, like a good film script.
Was Janáček attracted to this story and to other family histories for personal reasons?
The loss of his two children caused him a great deal of suffering: his son Vladimir died very young, his daughter Olga at the age of twenty-one when he was composing Jenůfa, and he dedicated the work to her. Describing and exploring the tragedy of Jenůfa must surely have brought Janáček comfort in that terrible phase in his life.
Recorded by Marie Mergeay