A review of Seattle Opera’s first-ever production of Janacek’s 1921 masterpiece, “Katya Kabanova,” through March 11 at McCaw Hall.
Nearly a century after it premiered, Leoš Janáček’s “Katya Kabanova” has made it to the Seattle Opera stage for the first time. The Czech composer’s portrayal of a sensitive young woman desperately in need of an escape route from her repressive surroundings contains all the ingredients for a searing music drama.
Even if some of these were only minimally present on opening night, the company’s new production delivers a feverishly powerful emotional experience. It easily surpasses that of quite a few shallow works mindlessly revered as standard repertory.
Decades ago, Seattle Opera flirted with the Janáček renaissance. General director Aidan Lang is to be commended for filling in the Janáček gap after too long an absence with “Katya” (1921), the first in the composer’s miraculous series of stage works from his final decade inspired by an unrequited love.
Seattle Opera: ‘Katya Kabanova’
by Leoš Janáček. Through March 11 (two casts), McCaw Hall, Seattle; tickets from $25 (206-389-7676 or seattleopera.org).
Janáček adapted his source material, a play by the 19th-century Russian realist Alexander Ostrovsky, into a compact dramatic juggernaut. The title character is unhappily married to Tichon, a well-off merchant who shows little interest. Treated with merciless contempt by Kabanicha, Tichon’s viciously domineering mother, Katya finds temporary solace in the attentions of a fellow outsider, Boris. But she becomes overwhelmed by feelings of guilt that — all too literally — end up drowning her.
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The Australian team invited by Lang to stage “Katya Kabanova” sets the opera in 1950s America, presumably in a rural Pacific Northwest locale. The visuals by Genevieve Blanchett and Mark Howett — combining sets, lighting and digital projections — underscore a basic tension between the lush natural beauty of the surroundings and the emotional ugliness of the Kabanov household.
Even the realistic depiction of their estate, which commands a spectacular waterfront view, verges on the surreal: the living room sprawls across the width of the stage, its vast, prisonlike window as oppressive as what you might see in an Edward Hopper painting. It beckons to a freedom that is beyond reach for Katya. Other scenes open up to the sky and waterscape that embody her yearning to break free.
Director Patrick Nolan’s staging oscillates between emotional realism and symbolic abstraction (placing the love scene at the opera’s center in a Garden of Eden complete with tempting fruit). But his direction is occasionally slack and follows too many directions to properly cohere within the opera’s taut framework. Hints of strict social conformism are contradicted by the behavior of Varvara, the adopted sister who encourages Katya to let herself go, while a satirical scene of a boorish acquaintance hitting on Kabanicha falls flat.
As the ill-fated heroine, Melody Moore combined her splendid vocal and theatrical gifts to deeply moving effect. She had full control over her powerful soprano, projecting the high-lying part easily across Janáček’s most tempestuous orchestration and applying exquisite shading and shaping. Moore conveyed Katya’s fear of her locked-up emotions with tremulous beauty, turning her final scene into an ecstatic vision of release that kept a refreshing distance from clichés of operatic madness.
As her lover, Boris, Joseph Dennis sang with lyrical refinement but was occasionally overpowered from the pit. Nicky Spence had a solid, passionate vocal presence as Tichon that belied Nolan’s direction of his timid character. Victoria Livengood was a thoroughly chilling Kabanicha, a master of psychological manipulation who used her dusky low notes to embody the cold-as-dry-ice matriarch.
Maya Lahyani made an appealingly free-spirited Varvara. As her boyfriend, Kudrjas, Joshua Kohl suggested a hipster rebel who nevertheless cautions Boris to play by the rules. Stefan Szkafarowsky played Dikoj, Boris’ curmudgeonly uncle, as a gravel-voiced character role.
Oliver Dohnányi’s conducting was most effective in the score’s tender and rhapsodic moments. Some problems of balance that covered the singers will likely be smoothed over in the course of the run.
(Note: Corinne Winters — who was such a compelling Violetta last month in Seattle Opera’s “La traviata” — and Scott Quinn are in the other cast and will sing the roles of Katya and Boris on March 1 and 10.)