Jenufa - Synopsis

Jenufa: Stefan Margita, Karita Mattila Jenufa: Karita Mattila


Leoš Janáček
Leoš Janácek after Gabriela Preissová


A family, somewhere out in the country.

The children are orphans, the women widows.

Old Buryja has outlived her two sons. The men had drunk themselves to death.

The Kostelnička, old Buryja’s daughter-in-law, had been married to one of her sons. After his death, she raised the child of his first marriage on her own. She looks after her foster daughter Jenůfa as if she were her own flesh and blood. Jenůfa is in love with her cousin Števa Buryja, the heart-throb of all the village girls and the old lady’s favorite grandson. His half brother Laca, brought into the family by marriage, envies the pampered Števa his beloved. He has been smitten with Jenůfa since they were children.

The Kostelnička is unhappy with her foster daughter’s choice. Števa’s conduct reminds her too much of her late husband, who had caused herso much sorrow.

She wants to spare Jenůfa the agony of having to go through this, too. She should have a better marriage.

Jenůfa and Števa want to get married. She is expecting his child. So far nobody knows anything about it.

Act 1

A late summer evening, outdoors

Jenůfa is impatiently waiting for Števa to return from the recruiting office. She prays to the Mother of God that he not be taken into the army, so the two of them can marry in time. She fears the shame of an illegitimate child.

Old Buryja tells her granddaughter to get back to work. Laca is whittling on a whip handle, looking through the corner of his eye at Jenůfa. He keeps on hoping nothing will come of Jenůfa and Števa’s planned marriage.

The news that Števa has not been drafted, arrives ahead of the man himself, causing great excitement in the village.

Števa shows up with a large crowd, bringing along the recruits and a couple of musicians. Jenůfa cannot conceal her disappointment at seeing him drunk again.

Števa tells the musicians to play for dancing and grabs his fiancée. The Kostelnička appears and silences the merry-making. She upbraids Števa for his drunkenness and prohibits the planned wedding. Jenůfa will only be allowed to marry Števa if he can manage to remain sober for a full year. The crowd disperses; the grandmother comforts the despondent Jenůfa with some old sayings.

Jenůfa begs Števa not to abandon her in her pregnancy. He couldn’t care less about her problems, he explains to her, as much as he loves her beauty. Then he goes home to sleep it off.

Delighted with this turn of events, Laca approaches Jenůfa. When she spurns him, he cuts her cheek with his knife.
Act 2

Five months later, winter, in the Kostelnička’s home.

The Kostelnička has hidden the pregnant Jenůfa at home for months, telling the family and the other villagers the girl is away on a journey. Jenůfa has meanwhile given birth to a son in secret.

The Kostelnička, who delivered the child, cut the umbilical cord, washed him, christened him Števa and looked after the new mother, bewails her fate and hurls accusations at Jenůfa. She hopes for the child’s death, which is becoming more probable with every passing day.

The Kostelnička has sent for Števa to come that evening. She gives Jenůfa a strong sleeping draught and sends her to bed. Števa arrives, feeling awkward. The Kostelnička begs him to redeem Jenůfa’s honor – to marry her after all and accept the child. Števa is prepared to pay child support, but he can no longer marry Jenůfa. With her scarred face she has lost all her beauty. Besides this, he has become engaged to Karolka, the local magistrate’s daughter. Števa is eager to put an end to the whole business, and runs out of the house. Laca comes in, as he often does, and asks how Jenůfa is doing on her journey. He would still be willing to marry her. The Kostelnička tells him the whole truth, including the birth of the child. As Laca hesitates for a moment because of his half-brother’s child, she claims the newborn child had meanwhile died. She hurriedly makes an excuse to send Laca off. She carries the sleeping infant out of the house and drowns it in the wintry river.

Jenůfa wakes up and finds herself alone in the abandoned house. She looks for her child and almost goes mad in her desperate search.

The Kostelnička comes back in from the cold. She owes Jenůfa an explanation: she had been lying in a fever for two days, she tells her, and the child had meanwhile passed away. As Jenůfa desperately asks about Števa, she is presented with the news of his visit and his betrothal to another girl. Laca returns and asks for Jenůfa’s hand in marriage. The Kostelnička talks Jenůfa into accepting Laca’s proposal. When the Kostelnička is about to give the couple her blessing, she is suddenly gripped by a spasm of terror.
Act 3

Two months later, springtime, in the home of the Kostelnička

On the morning of Jenůfa and Laca’s wedding, a small party is enjoying a modest little celebration. The Kostelnička is at her nerves’ end. Against her will, Števa and his fiancée Karolka have also been invited, along with her parents – the magistrate and his wife. The few guests are in glum spirits and criticize the bride’s unadorned outfit. A couple of uninvited girls brighten the mood with a short song. Before the party starts off to the priest, old Buryja gives the couple her blessing. As the Kostelnička is about to do the same, she is interrupted by a shrill scream from outside.

An infant’s body has been found underneath the melted ice. The wedding party goes running out, the Kostelnička is paralyzed with fear. Jenůfa identifies her child from some scraps of clothing. The magistrate loses control of the situation, and the crowd is about to lynch Jenůfa. Then the Kostelnička confesses her crime and explains what drove her to commit it. She acknowledges her great guilt and begs Jenůfa for forgiveness. Karolka, now aware of Števa’s irresponsibility, cancels their wedding. Jenůfa tries to understand and forgives her foster mother before the older woman turns herself over to the custody of the law.

Laca also begs Jenůfa for forgiveness. He will keep his word: he still wants to share joys and sorrows with her. Jenůfa takes Laca along into a different life.