"So Strange and Ridiculous: An Opera Without an Ending": Text and Music in JanĚcek's Opera Osud

Geoffrey Chew, Music Department, Royal Holloway, University of London

JanĚcek's Osud (Destiny, 1905) was composed just after his well-known opera Jenufa. In the latter opera, based on Gabriela PreissovĚ's drama Jej╠ pastorkyna, JanĚchek had set the prose of the play directly rather than using a traditional versified libretto, with the vocal lines often modelled directly on speech, in order to achieve an immediacy of "realistic" effect. This makes the piece a so-called Literaturoper, the first of its kind in Czech, and contemporary critics found the approach disconcerting.

Nevertheless, the composer went further in Osud--indeed the composer's approach here is more unorthodox than in any of his other unorthodox operas. In this work, the composer was aspiring to a modernity that would succeed in Prague, and so chose as his subject a pessimistic (arguably Decadent) exploration of psychological and creative breakdown in a contemporary setting in fashionable fin-de-si╦cle society, comparable to those found in some contemporary Czech dramas with similar subject-matter reflecting Prague taste (for example, Jaroslav Kvapil's Bludicka and Lothar Suchy's SlĚva). So the second act of Osud is based on a hallucinatory breakdown--indeed the breakdown in SlĚva (of the same year) is also hallucinatory.

As an appropriate technique for this purpose in opera, JanĚchek experimented with a lyrical modernism. There was no literary model, and so he arranged for a librettist, Fedora BartoshovĚ, to prepare a versified libretto on the basis of a prose scenario which he had written himself, evidently encouraging her to make use of "poetic" language. He then set this verse libretto to music--but adapting and "exploding" it, making of it highly stylized prose that slides into and out of metrical verse, and heightening its allusive, dreamlike qualities by disrupting its rational logic and rearranging and subverting the images. Yet the vocal lines are constructed just as in Jej╠ pastorkyna, employing "realistic" speech melodies--indeed, the composer went in search of them even in insane asylums, for the mad scene of the heroine's mother in Act II.

With this curious, contradictory style he combined a radical approach to traditional form, repudiating some of the most basic operatic conventions. For example, the heroine dies "meaninglessly" at the end of Act II without any traditional death aria, and, most disconcertingly of all, Act III, and the opera, end abruptly with no peroration. And both style and form are motivated by the plot: it deals with a composer who is writing an opera within the opera, which even after fifteen years is incomplete; he sings that it is "so strange and ridiculous, an opera without the last act," and this is because the last act is and must remain in the hand of God until it arrives as a (probably unwelcome) bolt from the blue.

Osud is, no doubt, a producer's nightmare, and has always been regarded as highly problematic; it is, indeed, one of the few JanĚchek operas that remains unpublished. Yet the two recordings that are currently available arguably reveal it as one of the composer's masterpieces. To understand it better, and to explain how Osud could be a "finished opera without an ending," the paper will attempt first to place it within the context of Prague taste as understood by JanĚchek, and secondly to analyse some examples of its unique combination of text and music, on the basis of a comparison of the verse libretto and JanĚchek's deformation of it (using specific material from Act II drawn from the unpublished vocal score and the unpublished manuscript verse libretto).