A distinctive feature of Janáček’s post-Jenůfa operas is his willingness and ability to explore territory not normally cultivated by opera composers. Káťa Kabanová, Ostrovsky’s tale of adultery on the banks of the Volga, played safe, possibly after the difficulties of Fate and Brouček, but all the others are extraordinary subjects for opera. ‘Soon he’ll even be setting the local column in the newspaper’, Čapek is said to have declared when he heard that Janáček wished to set his play The Makropulos Affair, much of which is taken up with the exposition of a complicated legal case. But that was one of the more conventional. The local Brno newspaper, Lidové noviny, did in fact provide the basis for Janáček’s previous opera, about the adventures of a clever vixen. Dostoyevsky’s prison memoir, lightly disguised as reportage, was the subject of Janáček’s final opera.
Janáček was his own librettist for all the play-based operas (Jenůfa, Káťa and Makropulos; Šárka was intended as an opera libretto from the outset) and made serviceable librettos chiefly by ruthlessly condensing the originals. But for The Beginning of a Romance (based on a short story), Fate (Janáček’s own scenario) and partly in Brouček (two satirical novels), he employed librettists, though taking a steadily increasing part himself. His frustration in failing to find a satisfactory partner for The Excursion of Mr Brouček to the Moon resulted in his writing his own librettos for The Vixen and From the House of the Dead.
Janáček began writing operas in the familiar moulds of Czech nationalist opera. Šárka, a serious opera based on Czech mythic history, was inspired by Smetana’s Libusě (1881; in terms of story Šárka is actually its continuation). The Beginning of a Romance, a comic one-act village opera, Janáček himself likened to Blodek’s In the Well (1867). The serious village opera that Janáček attempted in Jenůfa is sometimes regarded as a new departure but even here there were Czech models at hand, most obviously by J.B. Foerster (e.g. his Debora, composed 1890–91, performed 1893). Foerster’s Eva (composed 1895–7, performed 1899), furthermore, was based on a play by Gabriela Preissová. What set apart Janáček’s Jenůfa and Foerster’s Eva, begun almost simultaneously, were three factors. Though both composers attempted to evoke a Moravian atmosphere, Janáček, with his Moravian roots, his extensive fieldwork, and his absorption of the patterns of Moravian folksong at a deep level, was able to present folk music not as a colourful exoticism but as part of his distinctive style. Second, while Foerster turned Preissová’s prose play into verse before he began work, Janáček left Her Stepdaughter in prose, and thus wrote the first Czech prose opera. This is not to deny that much of Act 1 of Jenůfa in particular falls into regular musical periods, with the text somewhat adapted and lines repeated to generate the equivalent of regular verse lines.
The third factor is that Janáček began to cast adrift from obvious set numbers. The remains are there, ranging from simultaneous duets and a trio, to song-based folk scenes and a full-scale slow concertato ensemble for four soloists and chorus. Ensembles persist into Fate and Brouček, but by Káťa and Makropulos there are few passages where solo voices combine for more than a bar or two. Janáček thus became more dependent on the monologue and most of his librettos from Jenůfa onwards provide many such confessional or narrative opportunities. Their frequency in From the House of the Dead is one reason why he was so attracted to this seemingly unoperatic material.
During the writing of Jenůfa Janáček began to formulate the ideas about ‘speech melody’ which were to influence his approach to the voice line and indeed his whole musical idiom for the rest of his life. He frequently stressed how important such work was to an opera composer. Speech melodies were in no sense potential thematic material for Janáček but, rather, study material to help him produce sung stylizations of the irregular patterns of everyday speech. The result was a gradual move away from regular metrical structure in the voice parts of his operas (regular phraseology generally remains in the orchestra) to a more varied and irregular approach using a greater variety of rhythms. Characteristically, the voice parts begin after the beat and end before it, the notes increasingly bunched over the phrase climax. The process is graphically demonstrated by the revisions that Janáček made in 1918 to the 1888 voice parts of his first opera, Šárka (ex.5).
In the play-based operas such as Jenůfa, Káťa Kabanová and The Makropulos Affair, Janáček could rely on a ready-made dramatic structure, though he occasionally overrode the act climaxes (Káťa Kabanová). But in the novel-based operas, Brouček and in particular The Vixen and From the House of the Dead, he was able to make tiny scenes cohere by bedding them into the orchestral continuum, a process facilitated by the increasing structural importance of the orchestra in his post-speech-melody works. He made little use of leitmotif and only sporadic use of a few reminiscence themes. Instead his approach was to build up sections – often a whole scene – on a single motif subjected to ostinato and variation techniques. The second half of Act 2 of The Vixen is bonded by the structural arch of the offstage chorus; the first half consists of a set of variations on the theme of the opening prelude.
In Jenůfa Janáček came to terms with Moravian folksong and his notion of speech melody. The next two operas, Fate and The Excursions of Mr Brouček, show a further development in their reactions to fashionable European composers such as Gustave Charpentier and Puccini. Janáček much admired Louise, and learnt from its urban setting and characters (and the urban waltzes that go with them). In Act 1 of Fate Janáček imitated Charpentier’s large individualized chorus. Much longer-lasting, however, was Janáček’s use of offstage symbolic chorus: the ‘voice of the Volga’ in Káťa Kabanová, the ‘voice of the forest’ in The Cunning Little Vixen or the mysterious male-voice chorus that repeats Marty’s words at the end of The Makropulos Affair. All this can be traced back to the ‘call of Paris’ (an offstage chorus) that finally lures Louise away from her home. Puccini’s influence can be detected in Brouček and Káťa Kabanová. Later, Janáček seems to have picked up something of Debussy (in The Vixen) and even of Berg (in From the House of the Dead).
The uncertainty suggested by the extensive revisions that Janáček made to Jenůfa, Fate and The Excursions of Mr Brouček contrasts strikingly with the confidence he showed in the last four operas, by which time he had consolidated an individual style and a set of operatic conventions. The musical language is essentially tonal, though coloured by modal inflections, and in places surprisingly dissonant. But even in the harshest works, such as the final two operas, there are sudden and intense lyrical flowerings: this tension between extremes is one of the sources of Janáček’s creative energy. Janáček’s melodic style was sometimes dismissed by early commentators as ‘short-breathed’. Concision in all aspects is now seen to be one of his chief virtues: most of the operas are over in two hours. The dramaturgy of the later ones is engagingly direct, achieving striking effects by means of stark juxtapositions. In From the House of the Dead, Luka’s tale of his horrific beating is followed by the return of Petrovič after similar treatment by the prison guards. The torment and release of the eagle is juxtaposed with the torturing and release of Petrovič. From the House of the Dead, his slackest libretto in terms of events, is fuelled by music of an intense driving force, startling even for Janáček. The means of his art often seem trivial when analysed, the dramaturgy occasionally clumsy or even amateurish, but such factors pale into insignificance in the light of the immense dramatic instincts that Janáček brought to life in his operas.