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  • Angela Allyn

Soaring sopranos and oppressive villagers at Lyric Opera

Michael Levine’s simple, stylized and highly symbolic set of the current opera Jenůfa graphically portrays the prisonlike confinement of small town small mindedness and the jail perpetrated by the patriarchy in Leoš Janáček’s masterpiece. Each act opens with us peering through the slats, like bars, to see the scene of a Moravian village. In all scenes, a kabal of identically clad villagers eavesdrops and judges. Thus you can see and hear that it does not go well with the women in this transformative tragedy.

Now through November 26th only you have the rare opportunity to experience this 20th century Czech work with Jakub Hrůša conducting. The Lyric Opera of Chicago has assembled a stellar cast anchored by relationship of the statuesque Lise Davidsen making her Lyric debut in the title role and Nina Stemme as the doomed Kostelnička (Church Sacristan). The music is outstanding: spare, able to create an emotion with an elemental melody and interweaving Eastern European folk music into the modern tapestry of the score. Definitely come for the pre opera talk to learn more about this opera, as well as the lobby exhibition on Leoš Janáček’s life and contributions.

Jenůfa is a beautiful and bright young woman who has fallen in love with the immature Števa (the virile and tenor Richard Trey Samgur). His tempestuous half brother Laca, sung by Pavel Černoch, is a man with deep feelings for Jenůfa and no impulse control. He and Števa have a backstory: Laca was the black sheep of the village as a child. It seems they were all fostered in some way by the Kostelnička. We find out that Jenůfa is pregnant by her man, and he has no intention of making her an honest woman, especially after Laca ruins her beauty by slashing her face in, depending on your interpretation, an accident or a jealous moment. To avoid the shame that will ruin her ward’s life, Kostelnička hides Jenůfa until the baby is born and then tries to make Števa take responsibility. Entitled man that he is, he informs her he is now engaged to the Mayor’s daughter and he will give them money as long as no one knows that the child is his. Kostelnička, faced with the age-old dilemma of women and unwanted children, decides to drug Jenůfa and drown the baby, then convince Laca to take her in marriage to save her from the fate of all “fallen” women. Her thought process to “save two lives by ending one” and her faith that an innocent child will be safer by going straight to God presents the horrific untenable situation in heartrending music.

The river thaws, the corpse of the newborn is found on the day of the wedding and the town prepares to stone Jenůfa. Kostelnička admits that she alone is responsible and is led to her fate as Jenůfa forgives her and she and Laca step outside the black boundary slatted fence of their small ill-willed town. This art makes one wonder if the women of Texas and the Dakotas and Mississippi and all the states who have removed women’s right to choose and have inadequate maternal support systems can’t move beyond the slatted walls our own patriarchy puts up.

Jenůfa is playing November 15,18,21 and 26 ONLY at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N Wacker Drive in Downtown Chicago. For tickets and information go to


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