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Leoš Janáček

Jenůfa conducted by Kubelík

1951. BBC Maida Vale Studios, London
A studio relay of Janaček's opera 'Jenufa', which was the work's UK premiere and one of the first performances of music by Janaček in the country.
Composer Leoš Janáček
Conductor Rafael Kubelík
Singer Gré Brouwenstijn
Ensembles BBC Opera Chorus, BBC Opera Orchestra
Genre Opera

Jenůfa

At the time that this BBC studio relay was made, in 1951, both the work and its
composer were virtually unknown to the British public, and the broadcast,
conducted live by Rafael Kubelík on 19 May, constituted the work’s local premiere.
The conductor had only just the year before turned down the offer of succeeding
Sir Adrian Boult as Principal Conductor of the BBCSO, many of whose players we
may assume fetched up in the ‘BBC Opera Orchestra’ utilised in this performance.
Kubelík, the son of the world-renowned Czech violinist Jan Kubelík, had
conducted the Czech Philharmonic in 1934 when still only twenty and had become
thereafter its chief conductor shortly after the German invasion of his homeland, a
post he just about managed to keep throughout the war despite constant friction
with Nazi officialdom. Immediately after the war he founded the Prague Spring
Festival and resumed full-time conducting of the Czech orchestra until the
Communist coup of 1948, whereupon he fled, saying: ‘I have lived through one
form of bestial tyranny, Nazism. As a matter of principle I am not going to live
through another.’

His official defection took place in England, where he had arrived to conduct Don
Giovanni for Glyndebourne. Thereafter, following his rejection of the BBC’s offer,
he became principal conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a post his
commitment to new-music programming soon soured, which brought him back to
England and the Music Directorship of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in
1955. Xenophobic mischief-making by that faux-Falstaff of the British musical
scene, Thomas Beecham, eventually undermined Kubelík’s position, which he
vacated in 1958 (although, there being some justice, Beecham still failed to secure
the job he thought his by rights, a consolatory irony).The undoubted bedrock of
Kubelík’s later career was his 18-year long stint as music director of the Bavarian
Radio Symphony Orchestra throughout the 1960s and 70s which firmly established
the band as one of the world’s greatest. Kubelík retired in 1979 – officially
pensioned off as a German civil servant at age 65 – and retired definitively in 1985, suffering with arthritis, though he reappeared in 1990 to conduct his beloved
Czech players in order to celebrate the fall of communism. He died in 1996.

It seems likely that the BBC’s decision to perform Jenůfa in 1951 had much to do
with their recent association with Kubelík, though doubtless activity had also been
sparked by the intense critical interest in, and public appreciation of, Katya
Kabánova, which had received its first British staging – the first of any Janácˇek
opera – at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, on 10 April 1951, conducted by the 25-year-old
Mackerras. Clearly Jenůfa, even in Kovaˇrovic’s edition, impressed greatly, and the
Third Programme – forerunner of Radio 3 – gave a further pair of live concert
performances in 1954 under Vilem Tausky, seeming to ensure that when Kubelík
was appointed to the post of Music Director of the ROH in 1955, there was not
likely to be a long wait for the UK stage premiere of the work.

Strangely, when Kubelík duly did conduct it, on 10 December 1956, it was with
Amy Shuard in the title role – the Sadler’s Wells Katya – rather than with his BBC
heroine Gré Brouwenstijn, who was a great Covent Garden favourite and who had
just been singing Desdemona under him at the ROH the month previously. But
then, Brouwenstijn was even more famous as Leonore in Fidelio, and never sang
that at Covent Garden either, where for the entirety of her local career, from 1951
to 1963, she was confined exclusively to Verdi roles, one of them – Elisabeth de
Valois – sung continuously throughout four revivals of Don Carlo. She was born in
Holland in 1915, and in her glory years was much in demand, not least in
Bayreuth, an echo of which is preserved in her most famous studio assumption,
Sieglinde, on the Die Walküre remnant of RCA’s ill-fated Ring project under Erich
Leinsdorf. She retired from the stage in 1971, and died at home in Amsterdam in
1999.

The Kostelnicˇka for the BBC relay was Mary Jarred, less well remembered these
days, but in her own, a formidable figure. Born in Yorkshire in 1899, she sang the
fearsome role of the Nurse in Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten in the work’s Hamburg
premiere in 1932 before returning to London the following year where she sang at
the ROH in every season until the war-closure in 1939. She sang Margret in Boult’s
trailblazing 1934 BBCSO Wozzeck, and was one of the 16 singers chosen by Vaughan
Williams to create a hand-crafted role in his Serenade to Music in 1938. In the postwar
years she had a triumph as Mother Goose, the brothel madam, in three seasons
of The Rake’s Progress for Glyndebourne, followed by a distinguished career as a
professor of voice at the Royal Academy of Music. She died in 1993.

The rival half-brothers Laca and Števa are sung by John Lanigan and Raymond
Nilsson respectively, both of them soon to be Covent Garden stalwarts, and both
belonging to the influx of Australians that had also brought Joan Sutherland to the
ROH in the 1950s. Lanigan had already made his London stage debut in 1949
singing Rodolfo at the old Stoll Theatre, and following this BBC performance of
Jenůfa joined the Covent Garden Opera company, where he made his debut as the
Duke of Mantua. Clearly, Kubelík was a man with a good memory for a voice,
since Lanigan reprised his role of Laca when the company gave the stage premiere
under him, and went on in 1957 to sing Hylas in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, a legendary
highlight of Kubelík’s brief tenure as music director. Lanigan sang at Covent
Garden through the 1960s and 70s, carving a niche for himself in sharply observed
character roles, with one of which – the Rector in Peter Grimes – he bade farewell
to the House in 1981. He died in 1996.
Raymond Nilsson sang 12 roles for the Royal Opera between 1953 and 1959,
including Normanno in Sutherland’s career-making Lucia di Lammermoor,
and also appears as Bob Boles in Decca’s Peter Grimes conducted by Britten.

© Stephen Jay-Taylor, 2009

When the Widow Klemenˇ married the elder son of Grandmother Buryjovka, she gave him control of her mill. This effectively disinherited her son by her first marriage, Laca Klemenˇ . In due course the son of her second marriage, Števa Buryja, inherited the mill; now Laca has to work as a hired labourer at his half-brother’s business.

Grandmother Buryjovka, who lives at the mill as housekeeper, had a second son, Tomás, who also married twice. He had a daughter, Jenůfa, by his first marriage. After his first wife’s death Tomás married Petrona Slomková, the Kostelnicˇka (village sacristan).The marriage was unhappy: Tomás wasted her money, was a drunkard and often beat her. Since his death the Kostelnicˇka has cared for and brought up Tomás’s daughter Jenůfa. The girl works at the mill, hoping to marry Steva, by whom she is pregnant.

Act One

Autumn
Jenůfa is anxiously awaiting Števa’s return from the annual conscription ceremony.
If he is drafted into the army Jenůfa will not be able to marry him and she will be
disgraced when people discover that she is pregnant with his child. Laca, jealous of
his half-brother’s wealth and his relationship with Jenůfa, speaks bitterly to
Grandmother Buryjovka of the way she favoured Števa when they were boys.
Jenůfa chides him for talking to the old woman with such disrespect. Laca notices
Jenůfa’s nervousness about Števa’s future.

Jano, a shepherd boy, excitedly tells Jenůfa that he can now read, thanks to her
teaching. Grandmother Buryjovka says that Jenůfa has a man’s brain like her
stepmother; Jenůfa replies that her brain has long since gone to waste. While the
Foreman sharpens Laca’s knife, Laca torments Jenůfa about her love for Števa.The
Foreman announces that Števa has not, after all, been conscripted. Jenůfa is
overjoyed but Laca is angry.

Števa, drunk, arrives with the villagers who have been recruited. Jenůfa reproaches
him for his drunkenness, which provokes him into boasting that all the girls are
attracted to him. He shows off with his money, demands to hear Jenůfa’s favourite
song and leads the dancing.

The Kostelnicˇka arrives and silences the raucous party. She considers Števa a
typical member of the Buryja family and forbids Jenůfa to marry him for a year,
during which he must remain sober. Laca is delighted and tries to flatter the
Kostelnicˇka, who then leaves. Grandmother Buryjovka sends the musicians away,
tells Števa to go and sleep and tries to comfort Jenůfa.

Jenůfa begs Števa to behave himself so that they can marry before her pregnancy is revealed. Sˇ teva reacts angrily and continues boasting of his conquests. Jenůfa
tells him that she will kill herself if he abandons her. Števa reassures her that he will
not let her down and admires her rosy cheeks. Grandmother Buryjovka takes him
off to bed.

Laca mocks Jenůfa about Števa’s boasting but she replies that she is proud her lover
is attractive to others. Laca takes out the knife the Foreman sharpened. He
wonders how Števa would feel if the rosy cheeks he so admires were spoilt.
Suddenly Laca slashes Jenůfa’s face. Horrified at what he has done, he tries to tell
her that he has always loved her. In the confusion that follows, the servant girl
Barena tries to explain the incident as an accident. But the Foreman calls for help
and says Laca cut Jenůfa deliberately.

Act Two

Winter
The Kostelnicˇka discovered Jenůfa’s pregnancy and hid her away at her cottage,
where, eight days ago, her son was born. Jenůfa is still weak and anxious. The
Kostelnicˇka tells her that instead of worrying about the baby (also called Števa) she
should be praying to God to let the child die. She sends Jenůfa to bed.

Alone, the Kostelnicˇka admits that she hates the baby, just as she hates its father,
and has prayed it would not live. Now she will have to beg Števa to marry Jenůfa.
She is prepared to humiliate herself and has summoned Števa to her house.
Števa arrives. He had thought Jenůfa had gone to Vienna, but now learns from the
Kostelnicˇka that Jenůfa is there and that the baby has been born. The Kostelnicˇka
pleads with him to acknowledge his son and marry Jenůfa. But Števa can no longer
love Jenůfa after seeing her scarred cheek. He is frightened of the Kostelnicˇka, who
seems to him like a horrible witch. He tells her he is going to marry Karolka, the
mayor’s daughter, offers money and hurriedly leaves. Jenůfa cries out in her sleep.

The Kostelnicˇka is enraged and wishes she could kill the child and throw it at its
father’s feet.

Laca arrives, having seen Števa leave, and wants to know if Jenůfa is back (he, too,
believed her to be in Vienna); the Kostelnicˇka tells him that Jenůfa did not see
Števa. Laca asks permission to marry Jenůfa. The Kostelnicˇka now tells him the
truth. Laca is dismayed at the prospect of having to take on Števa’s son, so the
Kostelnicˇka, fearing that he will now not want to marry Jenůfa, tells him the child
has died and that Števa knows. She sends Laca to find out when Števa is to marry
Karolka.

The Kostelnicˇka wrestles with her conscience: by killing the baby she will give
Jenůfa back her life, and God will understand. Jenůfa wakes from her drugged
sleep and wonders where her stepmother and baby are. She wishes Števa would
come and see their child, and she imagines she can hear the baby crying. She
concludes that the Kostelnicˇka must have taken him to the Buryja mill to show him
to everyone. Calmed by this, she offers a prayer to the Virgin Mary.

The Kostelnicˇka returns and Jenůfa asks where her son is.The Kostelnicˇka tells her
that she has been delirious for two days and her son is dead. Jenůfa accepts this
with resignation, remembering that the Kostelnicˇka had said this would be for the
best. The Kostelnicˇka tells her of Števa’s visit and his proposed marriage to
Karolka, and says she should look kindly on Laca.

Laca arrives and asks Jenůfa to marry him, dismissing her doubts as to her
worthiness. The Kostelnicˇka blesses them and curses Števa and his planned
marriage. But she is frightened when she hears sighing noises: it is as though death
were looking into the house.

Act Three

Spring
Preparations are underway for the wedding of Jenůfa and Laca.The mayor and his
wife arrive and notice how ill the Kostelnicˇka seems.They discuss Jenůfa’s trousseau.

Jenůfa thanks Laca for standing by her and he tells her that he will spend the rest of
his life making up for the harm he has done her. Števa and Karolka arrive to wish
the couple well and Jenůfa tells Števa that she has finally found real love. The
stepbrothers seem to be reconciled. As the guests gather, the girls sing a wedding
song to Jenůfa. Everyone is preparing to leave for the church and Grandmother
Buryjovka gives her blessing to the couple. Voices are heard. Jano tells the mayor
that he is wanted: workmen from the brewery sent to cut ice from the stream have
found the body of a child.

Jenůfa realizes that the dead child is hers. The people assume that she killed the
baby and cry out that she should be punished. Laca holds them off, but the
Kostelnicˇka silences them with her confession: it was she who killed the child, and
she explains why.

Karolka is horrified to learn of Števa’s child. Laca blames himself, seeing this tragic
event as a consequence of his scarring of Jenůfa. She, however, begins to understand
the motives behind the Kostelnicˇka’s terrible deed. When the Kostelnicˇka asks
Jenůfa’s forgiveness, she grants it. The Kostelnicˇka is led off to stand trial.

Alone with Laca, Jenůfa tells him he must leave her: he cannot possibly want her
now. She says he should remember that she forgave him long ago for cutting her
face, an act provoked by his love. Laca pleads with her: the world’s scorn means
nothing if they can offer each other comfort. Jenůfa gladly accepts his love.

© Alison Latham

Recorded at the BBC Studios, 19 May 1951.

  • Gré Brouwenstein
    Jenufa
  • Mary Jarred
    Kostenlicka
  • Raymond Nilsson
    Steva
  • John Lanigan
    Laca
  • Doris Doree
    Grandmother Buryakova
  • Foreman of the mill
    Arnold Matters
  • Olivia Rossi
    Barena
  • Edmund Donlevy
    The magistrate
  • Elsie Boardman
    His wife
  • Marion Davies
    Karolka
  • Mildred Watson
    A maid
  • Beryl Hatt
    Jano
  • Irene Brightman
    The aunt
  • BBC Opera Chorus
  • BBC Opera Orchestra
  • Rafael Kubelík
    Conductor

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