Eva, Op. 50 (in two volumes with Czech and German libretto)
Josef Bohuslav Foerster
(b. Prague, 30 December 1859 – d. Vestec, near Stará Boleslav, 29 May 1951)
Eva, op. 50
(1895–7, first performed Prague, 1899)
(Czech and German libretto)
The three-act opera Eva was the second of Foerster’s six operas, following Debora (first performed in 1893). A product of Foerster’s maturity, it won the third prize in a competition for the best Czech opera in 1897 (after Karel Kovařovic’s Psohlavci (‘The Dogheads’) and Zdeněk Fibich’s Šárka), and subsequently became the composer’s most frequently-performed opera, though it is not often performed today.
Set in a Slovak village, the plot concerns Eva, a poor Lutheran weaver, in love with Mánek Mešjaný, the rich Catholic son of a landowner. Faced with the hostility of Mánek’s bigoted mother, Mešjanovka, and Mánek’s own cowardice, Eva turns her back on Mánek and marries Samko, a cripple. Their marriage produces a daughter, who has died, it appears, owing to Samko’s own bigotry: as a Lutheran he has refused to call the doctor because the latter has married a divorced woman. Meanwhile, Mánek has himself become married, but both he and Eva are trapped in loveless marriages. Mánek makes fresh advances towards Eva, and invites her to join him on a farm in Austria. Believing that he intends to divorce his wife and marry her, she does so; but she is humiliated at a harvest celebration when a labourer insults her as a ‘slut’, and she throws herself into the Danube when she finally discovers that no divorce will ever be possible.
Like Leoš Janáček’s Jenůfa, Eva is based on a play by the author Gabriela Preissová. Jenůfa was based on her Její pastorkyňa (‘Her Stepdaughter’, 1891) and Eva is based on her earlier play, Gazdina roba (‘The Farmer’s Wife a Slut’, 1890). Indeed Janáček, whose Počátek románu (‘The Beginning of a Romance’, 1891-2) is also based on a Preissová text, briefly considered basing an opera of his own on Gazdina roba in 1904, before quickly rejecting the idea, perhaps owing to the existence of Foerster’s opera.
Nevertheless, Jenůfa forms an obvious point of contrast with Eva, and both form interesting contrasts with their models. Despite the titles by which the two operas are generally known, the first names of their female protagonists, Preissová’s plays are not fundamentally about tragic, doomed heroines in the Romantic mould. Rather, they deal provocatively with some of the pressing problems faced by women of the period in bigoted rural communities in Moravian Slovakia (‘Slovácko’, rather than the Slovakia in the proper sense to which Foerster transfers Eva). Jenůfa deals with problems of illegitimacy and infanticide: Jenůfa is no more central a character than Kostelnička Buryjovka, the upright, bigoted sacristan who must risk damnation in disposing of the illegitimate infant of Jenůfa, ‘her stepdaughter’. The central dramatic conflict resides in the relationship between the two women, and on the appalling strain this places upon the Kostelnička, rather than in the fate of Jenůfa herself – which is not tragic, in any case, as she is allowed a fresh start at the end of the opera. It is telling that Janáček tried to insist on retaining ‘Her Stepdaughter’, Preissová’s original title, as the title for his opera; it is foreigners who have overturned his preference.
In Gazdina roba, which Preissová expanded from its original form in a short story (1888) into the play performed the following year, there is a comparable though different focus on relationships, this time on interconfessional tensions and on divorce. The relationship between Eva and Mánek is developed against the stresses placed on it by the Catholic bigotry of Mešjanovka and the Protestant bigotry of Samko. (Mešjanovka is a much more one-dimensional figure in her unpleasant bigotry than the more sympathetic figure of the Kostelnička in Její pastorkyňa.) In Gazdina roba, the Moravian dialect words of the play’s title, which juxtapose the ‘gazdina’ (lady of the household of a farm) with a ‘roba’ (slut, loose woman), in the insulting words directed at Eva, highlight the absolute inequality and injustice of the relationship between herself and Mánek, and the inequality between the rich, for whom divorce is available as an option, and the poor, for whom it is not. Foerster rather fundamentally alters the balance in turning Eva into a heroic female figure motivated by a doomed idealistic love, and so he succumbs in some degree to the imperatives of the traditional Romantic operatic genre… (Geoffrey Chew) …
Read full preface > HERE