Leos Janacek: Její pastorkyňa (1904)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes.

The opera with every conceivable het-normative vice (literally, I think sodomy is the only thing NOT in this opera), Její pastorkyňa has grown to become perhaps the most popular Czech-language opera in history, although it took a long time getting there.

This review was a long time coming. I have actually heard this opera at least two or three times before even starting to review it and I wrote up the first act back in January 2021! Perhaps an interesting way of looking at the plot of this opera is the annihilation of generations (after all, only one generation of a family exists at the end, while at the start there are theoretically as many as four), and the fact that its title character has the Czech equivalent of the English name Jennifer, leaves me with a family parallel that has caused this opera to stick in my mind since I first learned of its existence over two decades ago.

This review is of the 1951 Supraphon release conducted by Jaroslav Vogel with Beno Blachut as Laca.

Ironically, give that I wrote the review of the first act over two years ago, Janacek himself wrote the first act in 1897, then set the opera aside for four years, and completed the opera rather quickly in 1901. It took an additional three years for the opera to be produced because of antagonism between Janacek and the musical director of the National Theatre in Prague, who was upset over a negative review by Janacek of one of his operas.

SETTING: A village in Moravia, late 19th century. Of the two Buryovki brothers and their combined total of four wives (2 each) only the Kostelnichka (soprano, and herself already the widow of the Churchwarden, her name means Church-wardress, Kostel being the Czech word for church) is alive during the opera. Jenufa (soprano) is the bad girl daughter of the younger son of the wealthy Buryovka (contralto) but only her cousin Steva (tenor) will inherit anything. Steva has been seduced by the lusty Jenufa at some point before the opera begins, and she is now pregnant by him, although this is known to none excluding the Kostelnichka. Laca (tenor) is his younger half-brother, who will not inherit anything, but who is genuinely in love with Jenufa, although unlike Steva he has not slept with her yet. The two get into an argument about Steva during which Jenufa falls on a knife being held by Laca which causes her cheek to become disfigured. Jenufa gives birth to her wonton product of sin in secret with only Kostelnicka to help her, only to find out that Steva is going to marry the daughter of the town mayor. The Kostelnichka, seeking to eliminate scandal against her stepdaughter and hoping that Laca might marry her after all, will take drastically tragic measures in order to protect her unworthy stepdaughter.


ACT 1: The Buryakov Mill. (36 minutes)

0: The opening scene ** (there technically is no prelude, but rather an oddly mild string whirlwind with what sound like sleigh-bells in the background, it is actually a xylophone) has to be taken as a whole dramatic structure as it has no distinctive musical highlights, but rather introduces the various main characters in bursts. We have Jenufa praying to the Virgin Mary (who is far more pure than she is) for much of the sequence as she is terrified that he will be drafted into the army and will be unable to marry her in time before their child is born and she gets ruined socially as a result. She waits with their grandmother. Laca complains about his brother (a burst of fury), establishing the main conflict of the opera, namely their rivalry over their cousin Jenufa, and eventually asks Starek, the mill foreman, (a baritone) to sharpen his knife for him (foreshadowing). Throughout the entire sequence the anticipation builds (or at least is maintained), we can feel the agony of Jenufa waiting for Steva, and the jealousy of Laca.

10: There is a shift in the music ** (it becomes more joyful than worrying). Starek makes the announcement that Steva has not been drafted. This infuriates Laca further as he speaks with Starek (this is where the request to sharpen the knife occurs). The orchestra goes mad as everyone admits their personal feelings about the return of Steva.

15: The village moves towards the mill (dance music is heard in the distance and grows to a crescendo ***).

17: Steva (who is drunk and bragging about his sexual prowess), finally arrives. This is much more disagreeable (it is supposed to be). He forces Jenufa to dance with him (the chorus crashes in effectively **). Eventually, Kostelnicka breaks up the party and orders that Steva is forbidden to marry Jenufa unless and until he can remain sober for a full year.

26: Jenufa is left alone with Steva **. She pleads with him to love her (this takes over half of the recitative), but, not knowing her condition, he casts her aside (this will make the accusation Laca poses to her later, that Steva only cares about her beauty, make no sense because his half-brother has already abandoned her). The music depicts the continued alcohol effects on him (the vocal line is mimicking alcoholic stuttering, although eventually, he does finish with a good passage before departing).

31: Laca returns and goads Jenufa into giving up on Steva **, but she refuses, he antagonizes her further and takes the newly sharpened knife and slashes her cheek with it to the horror of the rest of the family.

ACT 2: Kostelnicka’s Cottage, five months later, winter. (42 minutes)

0, 4: Jenufa has given birth and she and the child (a boy) have been hidden by Kostelnicka (everyone believes that Jenufa has gone to Vienna to find work). The act opens with frustrated preluding * and then a conversation between the two women (Jenufa is given a sleeping draught). There is a theme which sounds a lot like a sunrise as the younger woman is sent off to bed **.

8: Kostelnicka, alone, contemplates how bizarre this Buryja family is *: cousin incest, illegitimate children, etc. not realizing how she will soon contribute to it through infanticide.

10: Steva arrives and is shown the baby **. He refuses to marry Jenufa, but offers money (in secret, as he doesn’t want anyone to know that he is the father since he is now engaged to Karolka, the daughter of the local mayor), and leaves (Jenufa is heard upstairs). As the Kostelnicka pleads with him to reconsider, notice the quotation from Dalibor in the strings. He goes and Laca enters. Kostelnicka reveals the truth about the baby to him, which leaves him disgusted, so she lies to him and tells him that the baby is dead. He then agrees to consider marrying Jenufa himself, and goes.

23: The Kostelnicka considers what she must do: having lied to Laca that the baby is dead, she much make the lie a reality and takes the infant out into the snow to die of exposure in the nearby stream. One of the most brilliantly psychological scenes in opera (and literally the only truly great moment in the entire score) as she slowly goes a bit mad (enraged by Steva in particular) ***.

26: Jenufa comes on, the drug starting to ware off, and sings a prayer for the life of her baby ** (little does she know). The Kostelnicka returns and tells Jenufa that the child died while she slept (which isn’t exactly a lie, for once).

36: Laca returns and comforts Jenufa, asking her to marry him **. Looking at the tenderness of the couple, the Kostelnicka is convinced that her crime was the best course of action, although she almost collapses regarding the freezing wind that is passing. The orchestra finishes on a very stark and violent passage.

ACT 3: The Cottage, two months later, early spring. (27 minutes)

1, 7, 10, 15, 18, 22, 24: After a furious bit of preluding, equally confrontational is the dialogue ** between Grandma and Laca and then the mayor arrives (remember him? I had almost forgotten that this opera had voices lower than tenor!) The Kostelnicka is in charge of the wedding preparations for Jenufa and Laca, but is also suffering from a particularly serious case of murderer’s remorse and gets into an argument with the Mayor’s wife (this is interesting). Laca then gives Jenufa some flowers (which is sweet, but leads to some agony between the couple **). They are interrupted by the annoying (but well-meaning *) Karolka (although Steva already seems to be in buyer’s remorse mode). Kostelnicka returns and get angry upon seeing Steva, but a chorus of maidens cheers everyone up. The next item of note is Grandma’s blessing on the couple *, which is very brief and broken up by the chorus of maidens finding the infant corpse. Grandma confronts Kostelnicka first *** but the scene escalates to probably its finest moment as Jenufa and Laca come back on, and the mayor starts accusing them of infanticide, the villagers starting to break into the house but Laca screams at everyone. The Kostelnicka reveals that SHE and she alone, was involved in the murder of the infant, which she committed out of apparent revenge for the seduction of Jenufa by Steva. Everyone is horrified. Karolka breaks off her engagement with Steva but Jenufa forgives Kostelnicka (to the astonishment of all), who is dragged off to stand trial **. The peasants tear up the home, leaving just three and a half minutes for a denouement *** for Jenufa and Laca in which he refuses to leave and she realizes that she has, somehow, found redemption in all of the suffering they have endured. Curtain to a grand orchestral symphony of hope.


The thing about Její pastorkyňa that it has to be cast convincingly or otherwise it makes no sense. The title character must be, at least before her knifing at the end of act one, an obviously attractive women or otherwise how not just one but two of her own cousins want her (and one has already impregnated her) will simply come off as hilariously bizarre. Her personal attraction to Steva is even more bizarre, especially since we first encounter him drunk and abusive. That Laca is the one that actually loves Jenufa is not really shocking, in fact his act of violence against her, slashing her face with his knife, proves his desire for her in a primal sense (the act marks her as his), even though his half-brother has already possessed her sexually and successfully inseminated her, something Laca has yet to do. The great success of the opera probably has more to do with the modernity of its plot than with its music (although the score is consistently very good and very distinctly modern). Rarely before in opera have issues like cousin incest, depictions of illegitimate pregnancy and childbirth, much less infanticide, been portrayed on stage. Sibling rivalry is one thing, but perhaps never before or since have step-relations (in particular female) been addressed in opera, and certainly not to such lethal effect. Kostelnicka is the anti-heroine of the opera (and far closer to the traditionally strong Czech opera female lead) certainly more so than the comparatively passive and weak willed (if sexually wildly) Jenufa. As for the music, the score is consistently very good, the best music actually going to the two tenors apart from the Kostelnicka’s great act two scene. Jenufa can be rather hysterical (almost all the time actually) and it is easy to write her off as a wanton waify figure with little to no spine.

Act two is a rather interesting example of minimalist theatre: the entire act (by far the longest) involves only the four principals (two sopranos, two tenors, with the Kostelnicka dominating most of the act). It also includes one of the few cases of Neonaticide in opera (committed by a female character no less, as the practice is statistically next to non-existent in males). Ironically, in spite of the fact that what she has done is literally baby murder, the Kostelnicka is correct in assessing that her actions were the best course of action (within the context of the opera).

If I can fault the opera at all, it would be for the consistently “very good-ness” of the score. Little of this is actually great (the Kostelnichka’s agonizing in act two being the only event which truly stands out apart from a brief orchestral crescendo until we are in the last fifteen minutes of the opera, when all musical hell breaks loose). Although nothing here is bad or even mediocre, there is so little that is great musically here that the opera has to rely on its orchestration and dramatic theatricality in order to work. Thankfully, both are marvellous and are really what spare the opera much of the oblivion of Janacek’s earlier work. The one thing the score does do is address the intensity of the situation on stage. Another feature is its usage of extremely high voice distributions: there are only four male characters (two of whom are tenors) against seven females (four of whom are sopranos). This is unusual, but also makes the opera boredom-proof since it makes a baritone-bass scene impossible.

As my comrade Nicholas the OperaScribe wrote, what is perhaps the greatest strength of the opera is its violations of operatic characterizations: the Kostelnicka should be the villainous step-mommy dearest salivating to perform a hanger abortion, Jenufa an innocent waif seeking to wed the father of her love child, Steva the ardent lover, and Laca the brute who knifes women in the face, but the opera flips all of this on its head. Yes, the Kostelnicka drowns Jenufa’s baby, but she does it with the most selfless of intentions. She has no reason not to expose Jenufa as the knocked-up cousin-banging teenager that she is, but she does anyway in order to secure marriage with Laca, who turns out to be far more heroic than his slimy half-brother who dumps his baby momma high and dry for the mayor’s daughter. The characters are flawed human beings with very human flaws, and all that pertains. But when it comes down to it, the opera really is about její pastorkyňa. B+.

2 responses to “Leos Janacek: Její pastorkyňa (1904)”

  1. You say it’s easy to write off Jenůfa as a spineless wanton waif; she is a rather passive character. Michael Ewans, however, thinks that Jenůfa is the *strongest* character in the opera, because she transcends the narrow confines of village morality. But dramatically, it’s certainly the Kostelnička, one of the great roles in 20th century opera.

    I agree that the music is “very good” rather than “great” – but the high spots (the two mad scenes in Act II, the reconciliation duet) are first-rate.

    Cousins marrying was pretty common in Europe until the mid-20th century; I wouldn’t call it incest.

    You say illegitimate pregnancy, childbirth, and infanticide are rare in opera. What about Faust? (With matricide, too!) Although I suppose that happens between acts, not during.

    Are baritones and basses boring? If anything, wistful / lovelorn tenors and sopranos tend to be the dull parts of opera. (But you’re a tenor, so you’re biased!)


    1. Baritones and basses are not individually boring. Long scenes of nothing but baritones and basses singing together for twenty+ minutes is (usually) boring. Remember I have reviewed over 400 of these things. There is a reason why From the House of the Dead has so many tenor parts! I disagree with Ewans, Jenufa isn’t really doing anything to transcend “village morality”. She is deeply religious (prays to the Madonna in act one) and seeks to marry her cousin in order to hide the fact that she is already pregnant by him. I am on team Kostelnicka, she is the real main character and “the ‘she’ of her stepdaughter” (to quote you). “Rare” doesn’t mean never happens, it means infrequent. And I wouldn’t use the cloying Chocolate Soldier characters of frenemy of the channel Gounod’s Faust as exemplars of operatic verismo, which this opera certainly is.


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