BLO's "Katya Kabanova": Turning the Other Czech

Elaine Alvarez as "Katya Kabanova"
(photo: Eric Antoniou for BLO)

Boston Lyric Opera's latest production is the area premiere of “Kátya Kabanová”, by Leoš Janǻĉek, composer of “Jenůfa” (as well as “Cunning Little Vixen”, “From the House of the Dead” and “Makropulos Affair”). This time around, the BLO turns the other Czech, so to speak, with this performance of the lesser known work. In fact, it also represents the first production of any of the works of Janáĉek in the history the BLO. Based on the 1859 Russian play “Graza” (“The Thunderstorm”) by Ostrovsky, it was first performed in Brno in 1921 when the composer was sixty-seven years old, but not produced in this country until 1957. This production uses an English translation by Norman Tucker, as well as surtitles. Like the novel “Anna Karenina”, it's the story of an unhappy marriage in a primitive society and time when divorce was unthinkable (in the era of the Greats, Peter and Catherine), leading to an episode of forbidden love. The Ostrovsky play was the subject of many operatic interpretations, but this one was the most successful and enduring version. Its depiction of a tyrannical and oppressive milieu, in which social taboos, customs and rites were to be preserved no matter the cost. This operatic piece is often referred to as the Czech “Madama Butterfly”, as tragedy looms throughout. Its three acts are performed in Boston with no intermission in just under two hours.

Diacritically speaking, this is a difficult work to write about and a challenge to any typist, but the libretto, by Francesco Vincenc Cervinca, is a relatively simple one for an opera. The story takes place in the Russian town of Kalanov, on the Volga River, in the 1860's. Glascha (Chelsea Basler), a servant in the household of the Kabanov family, listens as Kudrjasch (Omar Najmi) praises the beauty of the Volga. His revery is interrupted by an argument between the rich neighbor Dikoy (James Demler) and his nephew Boris (Raymond Very). After Dikoy leaves, Fekluscha (Heather Gallagher) extols the hospitality of the Kabanovs, which leads to Boris' confession of his love for Kátya Kabanová (Elaine Alvarez). Returning from church, Katya's husband Tichon (Alan Schneider) is ordered by his dominating mother Kabanicha (Elizabeth Byrne), which translates as “mean old sow”, to go on a business trip, leaving his humiliated wife vulnerable to the adulterous longings of Boris. Kabanicha's daughter Varvara (Sandra Piques Eddy) meets her lover Kudrjasch in a garden one night, and arranges a meeting between Kátya and Boris. At first faithful to her departed husband, Kátya eventually succumbs to Boris, declaring her love for him. Days later, when a thunderstorm drives Kudrjasch and his friend Kuligin (David McFerrin) to seek shelter, they are first joined by Dikoy, Varvara and Boris, then by Katya, Kabanicha and the returned Tichon. Kátya confesses her guilt and infidelity to Tikon and Kabanicha and runs off into the storm. Boris, exiled by his uncle, finds Kátya and tells her of his banishment. Alone and unable to endure her public shame and guilt, and even though terrified that she will not die in a state of grace, she realizes she now has nothing and acts accordingly. The beautiful Volga lives on in the final wordless chorus of the opera as a source of both some sort of salvation as well as oblivion, in Katya's final act of protest against an unjust system.

This is an emotional powerhouse of an opera, with music that matches the mood. Its many motifs are woven into a complex and challenging score. As Conducted by David Angus, and performed by an overall marvelous cast, backed up by the incomparable BLO Orchestra, this was an unforgettable musical triumph. The singers comprised a group with varied histories with BLO. Making their BLO debuts are Alvarez, Very and Byrne; Najmi, Basler and Gallagher are current BLO Emerging Artists, and McFerrin and Schneider are alumni of the Emerging Artists program. All were in fine voice, especially Alvarez in her final scene, and Byrne throughout in the unflattering role of one of opera's vilest characters. The Stage Direction by Tim Albery of Opera North in Leeds in England, in the revised performing version by Sir Charles Mackerras, is a recreation of Albery's staging there, and the Set and Costume Design by Hildegard Bechtler and Lighting Design by Peter Mumford are also transfers from the British production. Replete with dark greens and blues that mirror the colors of the river, they were the perfect complement to the tone of the opera.

This was a musical experience that will be long remembered, with the most critical role being that of the orchestra. Equally at home with the dissonant chords of the score as well as the melodic ones (the duet between Katya and Boris, “You know you are more than all the world to me”, for example), Angus and his orchestra were the costars of the production. It's a work that is relentlessly dark and dour, but has some of the most fascinating music in the today's world of opera. A light romantic romp of operatic trills this was not, but its impact was a thoroughly moving one, for which local opera goers can be exceedingly grateful. If one is serious about serious opera, this was one not to be missed.

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