By Elsa Tranter
All photos courtesy of Seattle Opera
The age-old situation of the small town woman, living in unhappy domesticity with no way out, came to life vividly and heartbreakingly on stage in Seattle in the person of the eponymous Katya Kabanova. This early 20th century opera by the Czech composer Leoš Janáček was adapted from the play “The Storm” by Russian author Alexander Ostrovsky. It was first performed in 1921. Seattle Opera has not produced this opera before, though there has been other Janáček music performed by the company.
The setting was shifted from 1860s Russia to a 1950s America which had similar societal values. There were strong contrasts between the wide-open spaces of the outdoors and the confinement of the house in which the main characters live. Katya longs for the wider world but is constrained from acting on her imaginings by the religious and social mores of her time. (In a pre-concert talk the audience learned something of the place of the merchant class in the Russia of the mid-19th century). Contemporary audiences can look back on those times and think we’ve progressed well beyond earlier attitudes, but was this reviewer the only one who was concerned about the potential return to more restrictive attitudes toward women in America?
In the opening scene the stage is bare as a white picket fence is carried in by the townspeople and an American flag lowered from above, making it overly clear what country this was. But then when the singing began there was a certain dissonance when the characters sang in Czech. (In a post-performance discussion, the conductor, Oliver von Dohnányi, himself a Czech native, assured the audience that singing in English would not be successful. He explained how the number of syllables in the words didn’t cross over successfully from one language to the other and the music wouldn’t flow well.)
The costumes were nostalgic for many in the audience, who looked like they too were young people in the 1950s.The staging was very simple, and made use of wide angle video projections, from mountains and rivers with rushing waterfalls to an apple orchard on a starry night. The interior scenes featured a generic suburban house with an enormous picture window in which the grids resembled a prison. Katya looked longingly through the window at the mountains beyond. General Director Aiden Lang explained in the after-opera discussion that Janáček provided very little orchestral interval music in which to change sets, so the Australian production team (Genevieve Blanchett and Mark Howett) had their work cut out for them; they did a fine job. The stage director was Patrick Nolan.
The title role was sung by Melody Moore, the American soprano, with a clear and beautiful sound. She had an unglamorous appearance, in keeping with her downtrodden housewife role. Her voice soared above the orchestra and she sang with great emotion and command of the words and music. (In a program note she described working with five different dialect coaches before she found one who could get her through the many challenges presented by singing in Czech. Moore gave a moving portrayal of the deeply troubled, unhappy and unfulfilled housewife, longing for death almost from the start. Living with an indifferent husband (Tichon) and a battle-ax of a mother-in-law (Kabanicha), she saw no escape from her plight. Scottish tenor Nicky Spence as Tichon and American mezzo-soprano Victoria Livengood as Kabanicha were similarly well cast, with Kabanicha almost but not quite over the top in her characterization. Their voices were realistic and compelling. The weakest role was that of Boris, the ‘other’ man who falls in love with Katya but isn’t capable of helping her escape. American tenor Joseph Dennis as Boris was the only one in the cast who had trouble projecting his voice over the orchestra. His acting and singing were true to his role as a weak and ineffective man (though it would have been better to hear him clearly). He lived under the thumb of his cruel and bullying uncle, the merchant Dikoj (who controlled the money). Dijok was strongly sung by American bass Stefan Szkafarowsky.
The supporting couple, Israeli mezzo-soprano Maya Lahyani (a former Seattle Opera Young Artist) as Varvara and American tenor Joshua Kohl as Kudrjas, were younger and more carefree in their attitudes and behavior. Their duets were lighter and more romantic and their music more Italianate. Their singing was fresh and joyous. They were very successful as the polar opposites of the triangle of Katya, Boris and Tichon. Minor roles were sung to good effect by Jennifer Cross, Susan Salas, Joseph Lattanzi (another former Seattle Opera Young Artist) and Melissa Plagemann.
Janacek’s music is modern without being dissonant and is strongly Eastern European—more minor key and darker than the Italian composers of the time (Puccini was a contemporary). There are moments of great beauty and tender emotion as well as big booming scenes of storm and agitation. And the orchestra carries much of the mood of the story in its playing.
The music is difficult to learn for both singers and orchestra. The Seattle performers, singers as well as musicians, succeeded very well throughout, aside from the orchestra being a little too loud for the singers at times. Having a native Czech conductor must have been a big bonus in many ways. The evening was satisfying on a musical as well as an emotional level, even with (or perhaps because of) its tragic ending.
There are three performances remaining, March 8, 10 and 12, with soprano Corinne Winters and Tenor Scott Quinn alternating in the lead roles. Go if you can—it’s an excellent opera for neophytes as well as for seasoned opera goers.
Elsa Tranter is a Bostonian who has lived in Berkeley for over 40 years and has been an opera goer for most of those years. She worked as a graduate student adviser at UC Berkeley and still attends Cal Performances regularly. Her favorite composer is Wagner and her favorite opera is Tristan und Isolde.