An introduction to Janáček’s JENŮFA – National Theatre Brno

An introduction to Janáček’s JENŮFA – National Theatre Brno


When National Theatre Brno
became part of the Opera Vision project, and when the decision was made
regarding the pieces to be broadcast live, quite logically
Leoš Janáček´s work was chosen. He was a composer who
significantly influenced the development of opera
in the 20th century, and also a person whose life
was intimately connected with Brno. He organized and conducted
concerts here, founded musical journals and wrote
for the Lidové noviny newspaper, and also established the Organ School,
which was the forerunner of today´s Conservatory. We have the Janáček Academy
of Music and Performing Arts here in Brno, along with the Leoš Janáček Memorial, which is the house where he lived as the director
of the Organ school. There is also the beautiful Augustinian monastery
with the Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady, where Janáček sang as a child
and later played the organ. Wherever you go in Brno,
you can still find traces of this great composer. Most of his operas
had their world premiere here. Our cooperation with Opera Vision
began with a broadcast ofThe Cunning Little Vixen,  but the second broadcast
we are preparing is related to a piece which was absolutely
groundbreaking for Janáček.   Jenůfa has its origin in the play
of the same name by Gabriela Preissová. This was a realistic drama
which had its premiere in Prague in 1890 and caused a great scandal as the topic
– a boy who disfigures the girl he loves because she loves someone else
– and the whole plot of the piece, which features an unwanted pregnancy
and a spoilt wedding that culminates in the murder
of a small baby, naturally triggered a stormy controversy
among experts and spectators alike. Janáček was a composer
with an unbelievable feeling for drama and it is therefore no surprise
that he was very interested in this deep story of humanity and pride, which shows the consequences of wishing
to keep face in front of others at all costs. He must also have felt close to the story’s setting
– the Moravian Slovácko region. Folklore and folk music
were a great source of inspiration for Janáček right from the beginning. It is also good to remember his extensive activities
as a collector all across Moravia and along the border with Slovakia. Thanks to his efforts,
many recordings of beautiful folk songs as well as customs
have been preserved. Of course, Janáček wasn´t only
interested in folk music, he also recorded what is known
as “speech melody”. It was a great psychological window
into the human soul for him, and was also strongly reflected
in his musical language. We do not know much about
the composition of the opera itself. The first mention of it that has been preserved
is in a letter from 1893, where Preissová wrote to Janáček
that she thought that the text of her play was not very suitable
for setting to music and that they would certainly find
something better together. Anyway, Janáček persevered,
very correctly, and Jenůfa has a libretto which he
adapted himself from the play. It is almost unbelievable
how many emotions and varying perspectives on the human soul he managed
to squeeze into those 90 minutes, and how brilliant the brief version
of the story he created is. Janáček completed Jenůfa
at a time which was probably one of the most difficult in his life because his beloved
daughter Olga was dying. The composer later wrote that for him Jenůfa
was tied up with a black ribbon of memories of Vladimír,
his little son who died, and the death of his daughter Olga. In 1903 Janáček offered his completed opera to a Prague theatre, which refused it, the director saying that
it probably wouldn’t be successful. However, an offer came
from a Brno theatre which at the time was operating
in makeshift conditions at a former inn on Veveří Street
which had been rebuilt as a theatre. What was most particular about this institution
is that their 21 musicians managed to perform works which are played
by 65-66 people in an orchestra today; it is difficult to fully imagine how. The first encounter
with Janáček´s distinctive music was not easy even for the singers, and it is said that after the first rehearsals
they returned their parts to the conductor, Hrazdira, saying that this simply
couldn´t be sung. Nevertheless, the opera was staged,
premiering in January 1904 to great success. Nonetheless Jannáček of course
greatly desired for the opera
to be staged in Prague, which he had to wait for
for another 8 years. The Prague staging became
a major breakthrough in Janáček’s career and his recognition around the world. Two years after its Prague performance,
Jenůfa was performed in Vienna in 1918 using a German translation by Max Brod,
Janáček´s friend and great supporter. After that it flew all around the world. It was performed more than 80 times
during his lifetime, and today Jenůfa
is one of the most popular operas ever. After the establishment
of the Czechoslovak Republic, the Czech theatre where Jenůfa premiered was provided with a more dignified home. It is today´s Mahen Theatre, where most of the world premieres
of Janáček´s operas took place. The performance of Jenůfa
which you will see broadcast live, directed by Martin Glaser
and with music direction by our chief conductor Marko Ivanović, will not take place
at the old Mahen Theatre because the opera and ballet
moved from there to a new home at our beautiful
and large Janáček Theatre in 1965. The theatre is not only named after Janáček, but also hosts the biennial Janáček festival during which Janáček’s music dominates
the whole city for three weeks. We would like to invite you
to experience this great event and also to view the broadcast of Jenůfa
via Opera Vision on 2nd October.

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