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Leos Janacek's 'Jenufa'

If you only knew operas from reading their stories on the printed page — without listening to the music — the world of non-comic opera might seem like a uniformly dark and dreadful place. Just think about how many operas there are that feature betrayal, emotional anguish and violent death as key elements.

But in any opera, the written story is only part of the picture. Add great music to that story, and you often wind up with a drama in which anguish and violence are transformed, becoming the means of profound and truly beautiful expressions of the human condition.

There are plenty of examples, ranging from the straightforward, verismo operas we often think of as guilty pleasures, to the complex dramas of Mozart, Verdi and Strauss. And we've got one of the best examples of them all right here.

Janacek's Jenufa revolves around one of the worst crimes portrayed in any opera, the drowning of a newborn infant in an icy river. It's an act driven by narrowmindedness and cowardice — but also by love. And remarkably, the overall theme of the opera is forgiveness. When the title character's child is murdered by her own stepmother, Jenufa reacts not with calls for vengeance, but with tender absolution — set to some of Janacek's most radiant music.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us a production from the Washington National Opera starring soprano Patricia Racette, one of today's foremost interpreters of the title role. Lisa also talks with the opera company's general director, Placido Domingo, about the opera and Racette's stunning portrayal of Jenufa. And we hear from Racette herself, discussing the complexities of her role and the unique beauties of Janacek's music.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.