A world of appalling social alternatives

Superb production of Jenůfa allows us to walk into a world we have, thankfully, lost

The NBR New Zealand Opera production of Janáček’s Jenůfa  has been warmly received in both Auckland and Wellington, and there are many good reasons why.

First and peerless, Margaret Medlyn’s performance in the incredibly demanding role of the Kostelnička was both musically and dramatically satisfying because of her profound understanding of and interpretive skill in the difficult musical idiom of modernism in opera, and her prodigious dramatic talent. This was fine singing and fine acting that it was a privilege to have witnessed.

Alongside her, Anne Sophie Duprels in the title role, was the perfect foil—her fine, strong but (when occasion demanded it) dramatically tentative soprano the correct register for the helpless exploited woman still trying to do what is right even though betrayed by the man she loved, the step-mother she obeyed, and the circumstances of her time and place. None of the other performers has anything like the weight of the work to carry—in the second act Jenůfa and her step-mother are on stage together or alone to the virtual exclusion of everyone else—but they were all more than adequate, though Derek Hill, who played Števa in the performance that I saw, doesn’t quite (no fault of his own) have the right physique for the role. The Vector Wellington Orchestra played above itself and Wyn Davies, conducting, kept them and the performers on stage moving forward at exactly the right pace to accommodate the turmoil of human sentiments that the opera portrays.

So why, even so, ought there to be at least a slight critical edge to our reception of this show? The answer lies largely off-stage. Its reception suggests that we need to pause and re-examine what we are doing in the field of the arts generally, how we approach them, and the place that they can and could occupy in a mature and wise society.

Jenůfa was first produced over a hundred years ago in 1904. Musically, it is a contemporary of Debussy’s Pelléas et Méllisande, which was composed in the 1890s, of Richard Strauss’s Salome (1905) and Elektra (1909), and of Schoenburg’s short operatic dramas Erwartung and Die Glückliche Hand which, though not performed until 1924, where both written before World War I. What is striking about the music and the dramatic form of all of these works is how accessible they are to us despite their age. In each case—and the same is true of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle (1918)—this is very disturbing music, heavily accented, relentlessly propelled, the movement in it directed at the drama, its seemingly wayward disregard for elision between harmonic traditions of both rhythmic and melodic form a musical expression of the turmoil of emotions: jealous rage, violent disfigurement, murder (in the case of Jenůfa, infanticide), the horrors of social disgrace, condemnation and exclusion. Though a hundred years old, it is music that still expresses “the shock of the new”, yet despite this we are able to hear it clearly. It is a musical language to which we have adjusted, which we can understand, and in which we find ourselves mirrored.

But what is true of the music is certainly not the case with the theme of the operatic drama itself—the narrative. In his programme introduction to the opera Nicholas Tarling notes that Janáček was a near contemporary of Elgar, which is true but tells us only that one era of European music was giving way to, and overlapped with, another (Puccini’s Madame Butterfly also had its first performance in 1904)—since although they were in a simple sense both national, indeed nationalistic composers, their musical languages have almost nothing in common. A better comparison, so far as narrative interest goes, would be with writers such as Thomas Hardy or Emile Zola, or the Russians—Dostoyevsky and Ostrovsky—whom Janáček greatly admired, and from whose stories he took the plots of the librettos of two of his operas. The music that he wrote for all of his stage works served to illuminate, dramatise and define stories about the consequences of social transgression in an age of moralistic religious bigotry, the social inferiority that was imposed on women, and the difficulty of finding personal salvation in a world of changing commercial relations. This is a world that, for the better, we have lost, so that to enter it through the door of a great work of art demands rather more subtle understanding than we are, for the most part, equipped to provide.

Several commentators have, inevitably I suppose, given in to the obvious temptation: this is a modern work that speaks to us about our own social problems, they say. The slashed face. The murdered child. Think South Auckland. Well think again, and begin by going back to geography and history.
The place is Moravia, a province of the Austro-Hungarian empire. This place is, by the then standards of the Ruhr or the British Midlands, a peasant society, barely beginning to industrialise. For all the laughter and happy-clapping peasant jollities of the two scenes where Janáček allowed his love of Moravian folk music to become part of the story, this is a deeply conservative society built on religious dogma and repressive custom. In these circumstances Jenůfa’s pregnancy by a young flour mill-owning neer-do-well whom she loves but who has no intention of marrying her, is a social disaster which will make her an outcast. Her step-mother —who holds the prestigious local church position of Kostelnička—compels her to hide until the child is born, and then murders it by drowning.

There is no beaten child syndrome about this. This is not uncontrolled drunken anger. The initial decision to hide is made out of fear. Fear of social ostracism and the catastrophic poverty that it will bring. The later infanticide is the logical outcome of an ideology of concealment, guilt and shame that goes hand in hand with a particular form of religious dogma. The battle over what to do and how to do it is almost entirely internal to the protagonists. They sing an inner struggle of which they dare not speak openly. The astonishing thing is that the Kostelnička’s decision to risk everything in both this world, and what she believes is the next, for her step-daughter’s social salvation is made to seem a perfectly logical way out of a harrowing corner. We are not meant to think that this is madness. The child, which she has christened, will be saved ‘in a better place.’ Her step-daughter, blameless, will be able to return to society unblemished, perhaps as the teacher which some thought she might have been. The Kostelnička will shoulder the eternal blame, which is thus transformed into a burden of moral choice.

This world of these particular appalling social alternatives is certainly not ours, so that Janáček’s insistence in the finale (when the crime is revealed, the Kostelnička is taken away, and Jenůfa settles for the love of the man whose jealousy had earlier disfigured her) that it is possible to rise above them, is a statement rather more profound than the simple ‘truth and love triumph over all’ that has been much trumpeted around New Zealand.

Some of this profundity lies in the psychology of the leading protagonists, the two women. Arnold Whittall calls the late nineteenth and early twentieth century trends in opera a continuation of “the Wagnerian obsession with female psychopathology”. This was the same obsession that found its less operatic but equally inventive expression in Freud’s world of neurosis, repressed experience, and sexual dependence. Ideas whose time had come by the first decade of the twentieth century. And ideas, mutatis mutandis, whose time has gone by the first decade of the twenty-first. This is what makes Jenůfa so difficult to understand as well as being indicative of its creative genius. The music, which was of its time, remains so for us, and permits us to get behind the screen to a world that has been lost, and to which we, here, never had access. In doing so we imagine that we understand the violent trauma that is destroying the lives of these two tragic figures, and in doing so we enter into the world of impossible choice with which they have to contend. This is musical artistry of the highest kind, permitting a sympathy that we rarely feel in our everyday lives, and liberating us from the squalor of bad faith and dull untruths that are the familiar commodity of much contemporary art.

Most of the boosterism associated with the production didn’t get in the way of this effect too much. The stage setting, much trumpeted from Glyndebourne, was largely inoffensive, despite the peculiar hillside of no obvious purpose and the Mickey Mouse waterwheel in Act One, and an interior staging for the other two acts in which the furniture of American Shaker simplicity circa 1955 sat oddly with costumes presumably meant to evoke turn of the century Moravian peasant style.

Chorus members appearing to attempt fornication on stage in the Act One crowd scene was the customary contemporary genuflection before the altar of infantile bad taste. I do hope that one day we will get over this sort of thing. Meanwhile, with thanks for great mercies, we did have, at the hands of a competent orchestra and two superb sopranos, the sheer liberating joy of some very great music.