Jenufa - Synopsis
When the Widow Klemen married the elder son of Grandmother Buryjovka, she gave him control of her mill. This effectively disinherited her son by her first marriage, Laca Klemen. In due course the son of her second marriage, Steva Buryja, inherited the mill; now Laca has to work as a hired laborer at the half-brother’s business. Grandmother Buryjovka, who lives at the mill as housekeeper, had a second son, Tomas, who married Petrona Slomkova, the Kostelnicka (village sacristan). The marriage was unhappy: Tomas squandered her money, was a drunkard and often beat her. Since Tomas’ death, Petrona Slomkova, the Kostelnicka, has cared for Jenufa, Tomas’ daughter. The girl works at the mill, hoping to marry Steva, by whom she is pregnant.
Act I - Autumn
Jenufa is anxiously waiting Steva’s return from the annual conscription ceremony. If he is drafted into the army Jenufa will not be able to marry him and she will be disgraced when people discover she is pregnant with his child. Laca, jealous of his half-brother’s wealth and his relationship with Jenufa, speaks bitterly to Grandmother Buryjovka of the way she favored Steva when they were boys. Jenufa chides him for talking to the old woman with such disrespect. Laca notices Jenufa’s nervousness about Steva’s future.
Jano, a shepherd boy, excitedly tells Jenufa that he can now read, thanks to her teaching. Grandmother Buryjovka says that Jenufa has a man’s brain like her stepmother and Jenufa replies that her brain has long since gone to waste. While the mill foreman sharpens Laca’s knife, Laca torments Jenufa about her love for Steva. The foreman announces that Steva has not, after all, been conscripted. Jenufa is overjoyed but Laca is angry.
Steva, drunk, arrives with the villagers who have been recruited. Jenufa 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 Jenufa’s favorite song and leads the dancing.
The Kostelnicka arrives and silences the raucous party. She tells Jenufa that Steva is a typical member of the Buryja family and forbids her to marry him for a year, during which time he must remain sober. Laca is delighted and tries to flatter the Kostelnicka, who then leaves. Grandmother Buryjovka sends the musicians away, tells Steva to get some sleep and tries to comfort Jenufa.
Jenufa begs Steva to behave himself so that they can marry before her pregnancy is revealed. Steva reacts angrily and continues boasting of his conquests. Jenufa tells him that she will kill herself if he abandons her. Steva reassures her that he will not let her down and admires her rosy cheeks. Grandmother Buryjovka takes him off to bed.
Laca mocks Jenufa about Steva’s boasting, but she replies that she is proud her lover is attractive to others. Laca takes the knife the foreman has sharpened, saying that he wonders how Steva would feel if the rosy cheeks he so admires were disfigured. Suddenly Laca slashes Jenufa’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 that it was an accident. But the foreman calls for help stating that Laca cut Jenufa deliberately.
Act II - Winter
The Kostelnicka discovered Jenufa’s pregnancy and hid her in her cottage, where, eight days later, a son was born. Jenufa is still weak and anxious. The Kostelnicka tells her that instead of worrying about the baby (also called Steva) she should be praying to God to let the child die. She sends Jenufa off to bed. Alone, the Kostelnicka admits that she hates the baby, just as she hates his father, and has prayed it would not live. Now she will have to beg Steva to marry Jenufa. She is prepared to humiliate herself and has summoned Steva to her house. Steva arrives. He had thought Jenufa had gone to Vienna, but now learns from the Kostelnicka that Jenufa is there and that the baby has been born. The Kostelnicka pleads with him to acknowledge his son and marry Jenufa. But Steva is no longer able to love Jenufa after seeing her scarred cheek. He is frightened of the Kostelnicka, who seems to him like a horrible witch. He tells her he is going to marry Karolka, the mayor’s daughter, offers some money and hurriedly leaves. Jenufa cries out in her sleep. The Kostelnicka is enraged and wishes she could kill the child and throw it at its father’s feet. Laca arrives, having seen Steva leave, and wants to know if Jenufa has come back (he, too, believed that she was in Vienna). The Kostelnicka tells him that Jenufa did not see Steva. Laca asks permission to marry Jenufa. The Kostelnicka now tells him the truth. Laca is dismayed at the prospect of having to take responsibility for Steva’s son, so the Kostelnicka, fearing that he will now not want to marry Jenufa, tells him the child has died and that Steva knows. She sends Laca to find out when Steva is to marry Karolka.
The Kostelnicka wrestles with her conscience: by killing the baby she will give Jenufa back her life, and God will understand. Jenufa wakes from her drugged sleep and wonders where her stepmother and the baby are. She wishes Steva would come and see their child, and she imagines she can hear the baby crying. She presumes that the Kostelnicka 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 Kostelnicka returns and Jenufa asks where her son is. The Kostelnicka tells her that she has been delirious for two days and that her son is dead. Jenufa accepts this with resignation, remembering that the Kostelnicka had said this would be for the best. The Kostelnicka tells her of Steva’s visit and his proposed marriage to Karolka, and says she should consider marrying Laca. Laca arrives and asks Jenufa to marry him, dismissing her doubts as to her worthiness. The Kostelnicka blesses them and curses Steva and his planned marriage. But she is frightened when she hears noises: it is as though death was looking into her house.
Act III - Spring
Preparations are underway for the wedding of Jenufa and Laca. The mayor and his wife arrive and notice that the Kostelnicka seems unwell. They discuss Jenufa’s trousseau. Jenufa 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. Steva and Karolka arrive to wish the couple well and Jenufa tells Steva that she has finally found real love. The stepbrothers seem to be reconciled.
As the guests gather and the girls sing a wedding song to Jenufa. Everyone is preparing to leave for the church and Grandmother Buryjovka gives her blessing to the couple. Voices are heard. Jano, the shepherd boy, 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. Jenufa 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 Kostelnicka silences them with her confession: it was she who killed the child, and she explains why she did it. Karolka is horrified to learn that this was Steva’s child. Laca blames himself, seeing this tragic event as a consequence of his having scarred Jenufa’s face. She, however, begins to understand the motives behind the Kostelnicka’s terrible deed. When the Kostelnicka asks Jenufa’s forgiveness, she grants it and the Kostelnicka is led off to stand trial.
Alone with Laca, Jenufa tells him he must leave her: he cannot possibly want to marry her in these circumstances. 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 scorn of those around them has no meaning if they can offer each other comfort. Jenufa gladly accepts his love.