|Gerard Schneider and Felicia Moore (photo by Hiroyuki Ito)|
We love introducing newbies to opera! Leo Janacek's Katya Kabanova is not our idea of a "starter opera" but our guest last night absolutely loved it. For this we credit the superb artists of Juilliard Opera whose superlative singing and convincing acting brought the story to vivid life, bringing out the themes of rebellion against a constricted life and the costs to society of subjugating women.
We also credit the astute direction of Stephen Wadsworth and the fine instrumentalists of the Juilliard Orchestra, under the baton of Anne Manson, who also conducted Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen some four years ago.
For this opera, Janacek wrote the libretto himself, based upon Alexander Ostrovsky's 1859 Russian play The Storm. It premiered in Brno in the Czech Republic in 1921 and the music is modern but not painfully so. There are riffs on Moravian folk music and lyrical passages, as well as plenty of anguished discordancy.
We think of it as a tale of two families, the interrelationships of which are complex. The small town in which they live is like small towns everywhere, filled with busybodies, familial obligations, hypocrisy, and religiosity.
At the head of the Kabanov family is the widow Kabanova (Kabanicha) who rules with an iron fist. We never learn what makes her so vicious toward her daughter-in-law Katya and her unhappy son Tichon who drinks and is afraid to defend his wife. Everyone tries to please Kabanicha but no one succeeds. The very idea of her accepting sexual pleasure from her neighbor seemed unbelievable.
There is a lovely young woman in the household--Varvara, a foster child who is somewhat less afraid of her adopted mother. She is having a romance with Kudrjas, a clerk for the wealthy next door neighbor Dikoj. Dikoj is another nasty person who bullies his young nephew Boris. Boris has to curry favor with Dikoj who controls his inheritance.
When mother-in-law Kabanova (Kabanicha) sends her son away for 10 days on business, the unstable Katya begs her husband to stay, or to take her away, or to place control on her impulses. When repression is so severe, there are always unacceptable impulses!
Boris has met Katya only once but has seen her daily in church and has fallen in love with her. Kudrjas warns him that Katya is a married woman but Boris cannot control his lust.
Katya makes an attempt to control her desires but Varvara eggs her on to meet Boris in the locked up summerhouse in the garden. She meets him nightly in spite of her feelings of guilt. When Tichon returns she confesses and brings on the wrath of both son and mother. Her religiosity and her guilt lead her to drown herself in the river.
Janacek's opera seems to follow two divergent paths: on the one hand, it immerses itself in the life of a small provincial town in 19th c. Russia; on the other hand it makes use of Realism in its dispassionate view of this culture, somewhat at a remove. This duality can be heard in the music as well.
The lead role was sung by soprano Felicia Moore, whom we so much admired recently in a Mozart concert aria, was most affecting in the emotional final scene. As Varvara, mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey was a vivid and enlivening presence and sang with her customary gorgeous tone. Inwardly, we cheered when she and Kudrjas made plans to escape the oppressive environment and leave for Moscow. Tenor Sam Levine made an excellent Kudrjas and was fortunate enough to get the only "aria" in the opera--it was a folk song of simple and repetitive form but we loved it.
Bass Alex Rosen was a brutal Dikoj, and represented all the ignorance of his generation and that stifling culture. In the storm scene, he denied the existence of electricity and called lightening a punishment from God. Rosen's booming bass was just right for the part. As his nephew Boris, tenor Gerald Schneider used his fine instrument and effective acting to create a romantic hero, in spite of the fact that Janacek eschewed Romanticism.
Mezzo-soprano Sara Couden colored her voice with nastiness in the role of Kabanicha. Ms. Couden was fearless in creating such an unlikeable character.
Tenor Miles Mykkanen has such a particular talent in recital that it is astonishing to see him melt into his character on the opera stage. He looked and sounded exactly right as the bullied son Tichon, strangely bound to his miserable mother.
The role of the servant Glasa was sung by soprano Maria Fernanda Brea. Mezzo-soprano Nicole Thomas was Feklusa, another servant. Baritone Xiaomeng Zhang portrayed Kudrjas' friend Kuligin. We even saw the lovely Kady Evanyshyn (reviewed yesterday) onstage, as well as Chance Jonas-O'Toole.
Vita Tzykun's costumes were perfect with the servants getting the colorful dresses.
Charlie Corcoran's set comprised one large room divided into areas--a bed, a wardrobe, a table and chairs. This was behind a facade showing the exterior of the house which, when raised, gave one a feeling of voyeurism. A gate stood for the entrance to the garden. We were a bit puzzled by the flying bed which was raised and dangled from the roof of the theater.
Nicole Pearce's lighting was subtle but evocative.
Anne Ford-Coates did the Wig and Makeup Design.
There is one point of argument that will never be resolved because opinions on both sides are strong. It is our opinion that using an English translation robbed the work of something special. Janacek's vocal lines were dictated by Czech speech patterns. Shoehorning an English translation into the vocal line just didn't sound right to our ears. Often, too many words were forced onto too few notes. Half a dozen people we know and discussed this with agreed with us but two were happy with the English.
We do understand that learning a rarely produced opera in Czech might have been too much for the singers. We also understand that many people believe that "accessibility" is a more important value. In non-musical theater we also would prefer to hear our own language in the interest of accessibility. But opera is more than theater!
We will say that the translation by Yveta Synek Graff and Robert T. Jones was as good as could be expected and we commend the singers on superb enunciation. Titles were projected but were unnecessary.
(c) meche kroop