Janácek’s “Její pastorkyna” (“Her Stepdaughter”), commonly known as “Jenufa,” is one of the most unusual operas in the repertoire. Set to the composer’s own prose Czech libretto and written during the illness and subsequent death of his daughter Olga, to whom the work is dedicated, the 1904 opera—based on a play by Gabriela Preissová—deals with social acceptance, disfigurement and infanticide in a turn-of-the-century Moravian village with unexpected results.
Tragic endings are an operatic cliché but here is a rare instance of an opera that starts on a downward spiral only to make an unlikely journey to forgiveness and redemption under the most extreme of circumstances.
This is only the third time that “Jenufa” has been performed at Lyric Opera, but other things also made Sunday afternoon’s opening an historic occasion. This is not only the highlight of the current season thus far, but a throwback to an earlier era of company excellence that is increasingly rare.
The Lyric debut of Czech conductor Jakub Hruša meant that not only the performance level of the Lyric Opera Orchestra and chorus was at an extraordinarily high level, but there was a deep connection between the pit and the stage. Hruša is a sought-after conductor who has worked with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and will become the music director of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden in the 2025-26 season. Lyric hasn’t engaged a conductor of this quality in many years and what a difference it makes.
No less significant was that Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen was not only making her Lyric debut in the title role but her role debut as well. It was a triumph on every level. Davidsen’s voice is an extraordinary instrument, able to caress tenderly and sing out across the cavernous Lyric Opera House with glorious sound. Her acting matched the level of her singing as if she were a veteran Jenufa.
It obviously helps to have a veteran Jenufa onstage alongside you, and that Davidsen had with Swedish soprano Nina Stemme as Kostelnicka. Stemme was the definitive Jenufa of her generation and is now making an indelible characterization of Jenufa‘s stepmother, a role that all too often is played as a caricature by sunsetting sopranos. Act II with its mother-daughter dynamics comes to life as a tour de force of equals and riveting music drama.
At the curtain call, the first thing that happened was Stemme going over to Davidsen with a kiss and embrace that communicated a passing of the Jenufa baton, as it were. Easy to miss but no less meaningful was that when Hruša came onstage after the cast curtain calls, he did the same for Stemme in gratitude.
“Jenufa” at Lyric Opera House, 20 North Wacker. Tickets available at lyricopera.org. Through November 26.