Explore Leos Janácek's Jenůfa in our archive.
Jenůfa is expecting a child by her cousin Steva, owner of the mill. In the company of Steva’s jealous half-brother, Laca, and their grandmother (old Mrs Buryja), she is anxiously awaiting Steva’s return from the army recruitment board. If Steva has not been conscripted, they will be able to marry at once, without revealing Jenůfa’s guilty secret.
The herd-boy, Jano, gleefully announces that Jenůfa has taught him to read. Old Mrs Buryja praises her grand-daughter’s intelligence and common sense; Jenůfa replies that her common sense has long since ‘flowed away like water’. Laca is trying to carve a whipstock but complains that the knife is blunt. The mill foreman offers to sharpen it for him. Goaded beyond endurance by Laca’s jealous taunts, Jenůfa goes into the house, leaving the two men to comment on what a fine sister-in-law she will make for Laca.
The foreman has heard that Steva has not been conscripted after all; Jenůfa’s joy at the news is shared neither by Laca nor by her step-mother the Sextoness (Kostelnicka). The new recruits arrive in high spirits, with Steva at their head. When Jenůfa accuses him of being drunk, he rounds on her: doesn’t she realise she is addressing Steva Buryja, a mill owner loved by all the girls? Look, he says, one of them has given him a posy of flowers. Steva orders the musicians to strike up Jenůfa’s favourite song, and leads a riotous dance in honour of their forthcoming wedding.
The Kostelnicka interrupts the revelry. If Jenůfa marries this spendthrift, she will spend the rest of her life scraping for pennies. The Buryja family are all alike, she says: her own late husband (Steva’s uncle) was the same – a blond, handsome, drunken wastrel. She issues an ultimatum: if Steva can prove his good intentions by not getting drunk for a whole year, then she will consent to the marriage.
Jenůfa is horrified at this fateful delay. Steva tries to appease her by declaring that she is the prettiest of them all: he loves her ‘rosy-apple cheeks’. Grandmother Buryja sends him away to sleep off his drunkenness. Laca taunts Jenůfa with the posy which Steva had received from one of his admirers; she declares that she will wear it with pride. Laca tries to kiss her, but she repulses him. Angrily, he slashes her cheek with a knife.
Jenůfa has had her baby in secret; little Steva, now a week old, is asleep in the next room. The Kostelnicka tells Jenůfa she should pray to God that the baby will die and save the family from dishonour. She gives Jenůfa a sleeping-draught and sends her to bed.
Steva arrives, in response to a summons from the Kostelnicka. He refuses to go in and look at his child, although he promises to pay for its upkeep. He cannot marry Jenůfa now: her face is disfigured, and she has become ‘cross and miserable’ just like her stepmother. Anyway, he says, he is engaged to the Mayor’s daughter, Karolka, and that will be the end of the matter. Jenůfa cries out in her sleep; Steva departs hastily, to avoid having to face her.
Laca is next to arrive. He knows nothing of the baby, believing that Jenůfa has been away; he has just seen Steva visiting the house, and takes this as a sign that Jenůfa has come back. He begs the Kostelnicka to let him marry Jenůfa after all, but she breaks the news to him that Jenůfa has given birth to Steva’s child. In desperation, she suddenly tells Laca that the child has died and Steva is to marry someone else. She sends him off to find out more about the wedding. Left alone, she comes to a terrible decision: with the child out of the way, her stepdaughter will be saved from shame and disgrace. She takes the baby from the sleeping Jenůfa and goes out to drown him in the mill-stream.
Jenůfa wakes from her drugged sleep, wondering when Steva will come to see his son. She discovers that the baby is missing, but concludes that her step-mother has taken him to show him off to the workers at the mill. She prays to the Virgin Mary to protect her child. The Kostelnicka returns and tells Jenůfa that she has been lying in a fever for two days, during which time the child has died. She tells her that she is now ‘free’; Steva no longer wants to marry her, and she should consider the faithful Laca.
Laca himself now returns and loses no time in asking Jenůfa to marry him. She declares that she has neither ‘property, nor honour, nor love’, but accepts. An icy gust of wind blows the window open; gripped by remorse, the Kostelnicka sees ‘the face of Death’ looking in at her.
In spite of the Kostelnicka’s increasingly nervous state, preparations are under way for Jenůfa’s marriage to Laca. The Mayor and his wife come to pay their respects; the Mayor’s wife expresses surprise that Jenůfa should ‘dress like a widow’ for her wedding. Laca tells Jenůfa that he has overcome his resentment for Steva and has invited him to the wedding with his bride-to-be, Karolka. The village girls sing a song to Jenůfa; Grandmother Buryja gives the couple her blessing.
The Kostelnicka is about to bless them in her turn when the proceedings are interrupted by a commotion outside: the body of a baby has been discovered in the frozen mill-stream. From its clothes Jenůfa identifies the dead child as her own. The villagers assume she must have killed it herself, but the Kostelnicka reveals the truth and recounts the grisly details of her crime. Appalled, Laca blames himself. Karolka calls off her marriage to Steva.
Jenůfa realises that her stepmother has acted unselfishly, believing that she was protecting Jenůfa’s honour. Jenůfa calls upon the wedding guests to understand and forgive. She tells Laca that he is free to go, but he promises to stay by her side; moved by his devotion, Jenůfa feels that God has blessed their love.