Act I — Mill of the family Buryjovka, in the evening
The mill-wheel turns, a symbol of the ongoing saga of the Buryjovka family. Števa, son of the deceased mill owners, has inherited the business. His half-brother Laca, owing to a meager inheritance, is relegated to working as one of the mill's laborers. Both men are in love with their Jenůfa, their cousin, an orphan raised by her stepmother. Jenůfa, unbeknownst to all, is pregnant with Števa's child, and wishes to marry him. On this evening, Števa waits at the conscription office to learn if he'll be drafted for war.
Three more minor characters enter during this scene: Grandmother Buryjovka, who is sympathetic to Jenůfa; the herdboy, who rejoices in having just learned to read; and the Foreman. As the Foreman sharpens Laca's knife, Laca ends up divulging his feelings for Jenůfa. The Foreman relays that he has learned Števa will not be sent to war. The reaction is understandably mixed: Jenůfa and her grandmother are relieved, while Laca sees his chance to woo Jenůfa slipping away. Amid the general revelry, Števa overindulges, and Jenůfa's stepmother forbids their marriage unless he remains sober for a year. The command leads to a confrontation between Jenůfa and Števa as she reproaches him for his drunkenness. His anger ultimately melts into appreciation for Jenůfa 's beauty. The grandmother leads Števa away to sleep it off. Laca enters the scene and tries in vain to remind Jenůfa of Števa's less-than-honorable behaviors. In trying to kiss her, however, Laca ends up cutting her cheek with his newly sharpened knife. The maid and grandmother rush in to help, and even as Laca protests his innocence, the Foreman concludes that he intended to hurt her.
Act II — Six months have passed; the home of the stepmother Kostelnička
Jenůfa has given birth to a son, but only her stepmother knows, and the baby remains hidden in the cottage. While Jenůfa sleeps, Kostelnička angrily awaits Števa's arrival. Števa turns up and, taken aback by Kostelnička's admonishments, confesses that he is no longer attracted to Jenůfa owing to the scars on her cheek. He admits that he is engaged now to the mayor's daughter, Karolka, and makes his escape following a loud argument with Kostelnička.
Laca arrives; he has visited Jenůfa frequently but remains unaware of the baby. Kostelnička, seeing no other option, confesses the whole story to him. Laca, set to marry Jenůfa , wonders if he will have to accept the child as his own. In a moment of panic, Kostelnička assumes this could be a deal-breaker, and tells him that the child died. As soon as Laca leaves, the stepmother, wrestling with guilt, takes the infant out to the river. Upon her return, she explains to Jenůfa that the baby died following a two-day fever, a story that Jenůfa accepts with helpless resignation. Laca returns, and the young couple, with some convincing, agree to marry.
Act III — Three months have passed; Kostelnička's room
Preparations are ongoing for the wedding of Jenůfa and Laca. The mayor and his wife visit, and Števa also appears with his betrothed, Karolka. A bond has begun to form between Jenůfa and Laca, and she graciously encourages the stepbrothers to reconcile. The peace is broken by shouting from outside; the herdboy announces that a dead baby has been discovered in the river. Jenůfa immediately suspects it is hers and the crowd grows suspicious. Laca protects her from them, but ultimately, Kostelnička breaks down and confesses her crime. First horrified, Jenůfa gradually understands her stepmother's motivations and offers her forgiveness. Kostelnička is led away to face trial. Laca and Jenůfa share the stage in the final scene and reaffirm their love for each other, in a remarkable show of personal growth and transcendence.
Melanie Feilotter, OPERA America