NZ Opera’s Kátya Kabanová packs a punch at the St.James in Wellington

New Zealand Opera presents:
Opera in Three Acts by Leoš Janáček

Cast: Kátya Kabanová – Dina Kuznetsova
Boris – Angus Wood
Dikój – Conal Coad
Kabanicha – Margaret Medlyn
Tichon – Andrew Glover
Kudrjas – James Benjamin Rodgers
Varvara – Hayley Sugars
Kuligin – Robert Tucker
Glasha – Emma Sloman
Feklusha – Linden Loader

Conductor: Wyn Davies
Director: Patrick Nolan
Assistant Director : Jacqueline Coats
Designer: Genevieve Blanchett
Lighting: Mark Howett
Chorus Director: Michael Vinten

Freemasons Chorus
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

St.James Theatre, Wellington
Saturday 7th October, 2017

(from Thursday 12th to Saturday 14th October)

Janáček wrote to his long-time, would-be amour Kamila Stösslova about his leading character in the new opera he was planning, in 1920 – “The main character there is a woman, so gentle by nature…..a breeze would carry her away, let alone the storm that breaks over her….” This was Kátya Kabanová, or Káťa Kabanová as the Czech spelling has it, the first of three operas whereby the composer sublimated his passion for Stösslova, a young married woman thirty-eight years his junior, portraying her in different idealised ways in each work. Here as Kátya, she was a woman possessed by “great measureless love”, while in The Cunning Little Vixen, the heroine was a resourceful and self-sacrificing wife and mother – and lastly, in The Makropoulos Affair she was a glamorous 300 year-old woman in the grip of an enchantment which had brought her many lovers, but whose spell was about to lose its power and bring her life to its end, resigning her to her fate.

Kátya was based on a play by the Russian Alexander Ostrovsky, The Thunderstorm, which Janáček himself had not seen performed, but being an ardent Russophile was an admirer of writers such as Gogol and Tolstoy (and had already used the work of each of these as inspiration for his own compositions). He was particularly attracted to the character of Katerina in the play, a woman who embodied exceptional goodness of spirit and sensitivity, but was locked into loveless circumstances from which she struggled to escape, a conflict which eventually claimed her own life through guilt and remorse resulting from her own actions. Powerful stuff!

Though not highlighted as such by Janáček, the storm scene that gave Ostrovsky’s play its name was suitably apocalyptic in the opera as well – here, it marked Kátya ‘s breakdown as, overwhelmed by her sense of having irrevocably sinned, she despairingly confesses to her adultery in front of her husband and family and the townspeople, at the thunderstorm’s height. Kátya does have allies, Varvara, her younger sister-in-law (though a foster-child), and the latter’s lover, Kudrjas, a neighbour, though both are simply too preoccupied with one another to give her proper support. But while the domineering Kabanicha (her mother-in-law) is unkindly disposed towards Kátya, and both Tichon her husband and Boris her lover are weak, vacillating men (Tichon subservient to his mother and Boris to his uncle, the merchant Dikój), Kátya’s ultimate undoing is her own sensibility and its fatal interaction with religion-induced guilt and small-town hypocrisies – a world that a contemporary critic had called, in Ostrovsky’s original work, the “realm of darkness”.

At the outset I thought this NZ Opera production’s setting, in rural America (this was a production imported from Seattle Opera), somewhat incongruous in tandem with the sounds of the Czech language being sung, and found the prominently-displayed “stars-and-stripes” and the stage-dominating archetypal white picket fence almost crude and repellent (was the former a none-too-subliminal “Make NZ Opera great again!” message?) – but, in view of those recent populist-driven events in the United States, all too indicative of the upsurge of a contemporary “realm of darkness” as dangerous as any in the past, it all began to make sense as the net began to tighten its inexorable grip on the heroine, putting her salvation beyond earthly reach.

With the opera’s advancement the production seemed to me to shed its parochial blatancies and take us more undistractedly into universal human behaviours, though of the characters only Kátya seemed to grow as a human being – even Kurdrjas’s and Varvara’s decision to elope, made at the height of Kátya’s torment is treated lightly by the couple, more like a holiday than a radical change of direction – “Here’s to a new life, then – and fun!” sings Varvara (and I’m almost certain I heard Kudrjas sing “V Moskvu matičku?” (To Moscow, then?) – though to be fair, it might have been the name of a similar-sounding American city, sung with a Czech accent!).

For the rest, life goes on – Kátya’s husband Tichon remains in thrall to his unrepentant mother, the Kabanicha; and her lover, Boris, having abandoned Kátya to her fate, is sent out of sight and out of mind by his tyrannical, God-fearing uncle, Dikój, (in Janáček’s libretto, to work in Siberia! – though I wasn’t paying enough attention to the surtitles to pick up any further geographical incongruity!). Only Kátya is truly affected, in fact transfigured – but at the cost of her own life. For her, a happy release, perhaps – but for we in the audience, a disturbing human tragedy.

As Kátya, Russian-American soprano Dina Kuznetsova grew on me – at the very beginning she seemed disconcertingly middle-aged, even matronly in appearance, an impression which confused my expectation of her being as a “young wife” to Tichon, her husband. However, as the scenes unfolded, Kuznetsova’s portrayal gathered more and more youthful energy – her impulsive fancies, which she at first expressed to Varvara as wanting freedom to “fly like a bird”, were skilfully metamorphosed into candid revelations of suppressed sexual desires – her descriptions of someone whispering to her at night in her dreams, “like a dove cooing” were very beautifully and tremulously released, conveying desire and guilt at one and the same time with a convincing amalgam of confusion, ecstasy and compulsiveness.

With her husband, Tichon, about to leave on a business trip, her pleas for assurance and strength of response from him were pitiful in their desperation, accentuated by Tichon’s bewilderment at her emotional display, and his dismissive, ineffectual responses, to the point where Kátya’s “goodbye” to him had the air of a kind of death-knell to their marriage. By this time, Kuznetsova had fully “brought us in” to the heroine’s desperate state of being, so that we were practically “willing” her to take up the equally impulsive Varvara’s “setting up” of Dikój’s nephew Boris, by her giving Katya a spare key to the house, allowing her free access to her would-be swain!

Janáček’s music in the subsequent scene for two sets of lovers beautifully contrasted Kátya’s depth of emotion in the throes of her desperation with that written for Kudrjas and Varvara, the younger pair’s exchanges more “folksy” and carefree (echoes of Puccini’s “La Boheme” in places!). For me, this was, as well, the scene where the production “threw open” the opera’s vistas, with backdrops of stars and naturalistic ambiences giving the human interactions a universality all the more telling for its delayed release.

Act Three featured the thunderstorm and Kátya’s subsequent confession, transfiguration and death – throughout, Dina Kunetsova demonstrated just why her performance was a must-see, in every way imbuing the repressed character presented in the opera’s opening scene with desperate, recklessly courageous and open-hearted honesty of expression. The grim, tight-lipped responses of everybody else to the situation and its outcomes were thus exposed as caricatures of human behaviour, and the characters themselves also as casualties of existence, in a completely different way.

Kátya’s allies, Kudrjas and Varvara, were splendidly brought to life by James Benjamin Rodgers and Hayley Sugars, each capturing a distinctive interpretative quality in voice and manner, Kudrjas both a nature-poet, marvelling at the beauties of the passing river, and a man of science, explaining to the bullish merchant Dikój about lightning-rods during the storm – and then Varvara, the Kabanov’s “foster-child” (Ostrovsky’s play had her as Tichon’s sister), and therefore a kind of “outsider”who’s obviously something of a “free” spirit, judging by her encouragement of Kátya to pursue her affair with Boris, and her ready acquiescence with Kudrjas’s “elopement” plan!

Angus Wood as the attractive but self-absorbed Boris conveyed just the right mix of bravado and self-pity regarding his situation to his friend Kudrjas at the work’s beginning, leaving us ambivalent regarding how “true” and “constant” his feelings for Kátya might prove. An ardent lover of Kátya during their garden scene, his protestations were nullified by his subsequent passive, weak-willed reactions to her overwhelming distress, his farewell words to her “What sorrow parting is! – What sorrow for me!” underlining his self-centredness.

On the face of things, the ghoulish pair of the Kabanicha (Kátya’s mother-in-law, played by Margaret Medlyn), and her weak, hen-pecked son, Tichon (Andrew Glover) was largely responsible for Kátya’s life being such a misery, the Kabanicha demanding absolute loyalty and affection from her son at her daughter-in-law’s expense, while expecting the latter to know her place and be subservient to her husband and family. Margaret Medlyn continued her success with the composer’s operatic characters begun in Jenufa with the role of the Kostelnicka, and continued here with the still more odious Kabanicha (a good thing she has in other repertoire undertaken more likeable characters!). Here she epitomised utter ruthlessness, as exemplified by her final cynical dismissal of the onlookers after Kátya’s body is recovered from the river. Her near-complete absorbtion of her son Tichon’s affections is grotesquely echoed in her holding in thrall the otherwise dominating bully Dikój, like a duchess exercising control over her fiefdom!

Where Andrew Glover’s Tichon brilliantly epitomised emasculation with uncomfortable veracity, Conal Coad’s convincingly larger-than-life Dikój was all outward macho aggressiveness (except in the presence of the Kabanicha, who became like his “confessor”). Each of these three characters made up a chilling component of that “realm of darkness” previously referred to, which Kátya sacrificed her life in trying to escape. The other players in the drama, Glasha (Emma Sloman), Kuligin (Robert Tucker), and Felushka (Linden Loader) nicely characterised their brief pre-ordained roles as pieces in this same rigorously-wrought social structure, as did the various members of the Freemasons’ Chorus with their on-the-spot presence in the drama’s framing scenes.

It’s Janáček’s music as much as the dramatic action and the stage characterisations which make the opera such a vivid experience, though – and Music Director Wyn Davies and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra demonstrated with great skill and sure dramatic instinct the score’s powerfully-wrought amalgam of lyricism and dramatic force. From the opera’s Prelude it was Kátya’s music that dominated, all the other characters to an extent drawn into her phrases and themes in a way that reflected their interaction. Whether impulsive (Kátya’s confession to Varvara of sexual longings), repressive (the Kabanicha’s bullying of Kátya via her son Tichon), or despairing (Kátya’s confessing of her “sins” to the whole company), the character of the music held sway, the composer managing to encompass both voices and instruments in a full-blooded panoply of intensities that wrung out the emotions in no uncertain terms – and the players of the NZSO were more than up to the task of rendering their part in the whole with distinction.

As I’ve previously indicated, it was a production that, to me, made increasing sense and gathered weight and pace as it progressed – from Act Two’s Garden scene, and right throughout Act Three, with its thunderstorm, Kátya’s final meeting with Boris, and her suicide, the atmosphere seemed at once to throw open the vistas while tightening the dramatic grip almost to breaking-point – those starlit skies of Kátya’s vision alternated with images of the river’s brooding menace in the wake of the frightening thunderstorm served the drama well, and paid tribute to the abilities of the creative team, director Patrick Nolan and his assistant, Jacqueline Coats, along with designer Genevieve Blanchett and the skilfully-applied lighting of Mark Howett.

Kátya Kabanová has but two days to run at Wellington’s St.James Theatre at the time of my writing this review – it’s great music and theatre, which this production delivers with compelling force and surety.

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