The opportunity to hear Leoš Janáček’s magnificent score live ultimately trumps any reservations I have about the production as a whole.
Kátya Kabanová. Music by Leoš Janáček. Libretto by Francesco Vincenc Cervinka. Sung in an English translation by Norman Tucker. Conducted by David Argus. Stage direction by Tim Albery. Staged by the Boston Lyric Opera at the Shubert Theatre, Boston, MA, through March 22.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
Boston Lyric Opera (BLO) opened its first production of Leoš Janáček’s Kátya Kabanová this weekend at the Shubert Theater. Simply bringing this opera into its repertoire is a step in the right direction for BLO, New England’s largest opera company, whose ambitions are clearly striving after the right things but whose success with the standard repertoire in recent seasons has been decidedly mixed. This Kátya Kabanová, imported from Opera North (U.K.), gets some things right while leaving others to be desired. The opportunity to hear Janáček’s magnificent score live, though, ultimately trumps any reservations I have about the production as a whole.
Kátya Kabanová is a remarkably concise opera. Clocking in at only about 100 minutes, it wastes no time establishing the basics. Its narrative traces the tale of the title character, who is married to Tichon, a weak man dominated by his mother, Kabanicha. When Tichon is away on a trip, Katya’s sister-in-law, Varvara, arranges a tryst for her with Boris, another weak-willed but well-meaning local who lives with his browbeating uncle, Dikoy. Wracked with guilt after Tichon returns, Katya confesses her affair, suffers a breakdown, and drowns herself in the Volga.
The drawback to the opera’s structure is that characters aren’t fully fleshed out: its villains are cardboard cutouts and even the main characters not much more substantive. But Janáček’s extraordinary score, a marriage of sumptuous, late-Romanticism with knife-edged Modernist tendencies, makes amends for the libretto’s shortcomings. The music is all deeply personal: at the time he wrote Kátya Kabanová Janáček was deeply in love with Kamila Stosslova, a married woman nearly forty years his junior. His writing for Katya, a woman trapped in a dead-end marriage, is powerful and sympathetic.
As much of Janáček’s vocal music does, it here reflects the rhythms and contours of Czech speech, which provides Kátya Kabanová a strikingly original sound world. Unfortunately, BLO’s current production is sung in English, not Czech, and therein lies perhaps its biggest defect: tinkering with Janáček’s lyrics comes at a price and, unsurprisingly, in Norman Tucker’s translation, the text comes across as generic and trite, and it never feels like a good fit with Janáček’s vocal writing. Worse, in the performance I attended on Sunday, the former characteristics cost the opera a significant measure of drama and dignity.
Yes, Kátya Kabanová’s 19th-century moralism is dated; it will likely seem especially so to a progressive, 21st-century New England audience. But there was a striking disconnect between the lyrics (especially Kabanicha’s badgering of Katya about a wife’s supposed duty to her husband, which provoked plenty of laughter) and the expressive thrust of the tragedy. At the end of act one, I heard a patron nearby grumble that Kátya Kabanová, was “the silliest comedy I’ve ever seen.” It’s hard to believe that such a reaction was Janáček’s – or this production team’s – intent; yet the sentiment didn’t (at that point in the opera, at least) seem limited to my section of the theater. It was also a difficult one with which to disagree.
There is a case to be made – both based on historical precedent and practical motivations – for translating opera into English. In this instance, though, it’s a mistake: removing the Czech language from Janáček’s score has the effect of cutting out of the opera’s emotional core and cheapening its content.
That said, on Sunday afternoon, the singing of the cast was at least uniformly strong.
In the title role, Elaine Alvarez ably embodied the religious, superstitious Katya. Her voice is large but flexible and easily carried over the other singers on stage and the orchestra. Her tone on Sunday was nicely distributed across her range. There were a couple of shrill moments in the early scenes and her diction wasn’t always pristine, but she was compelling nonetheless.
The finest performance of the afternoon belonged to Sandra Piques Eddy in the role of Varvara. This is a well-meaning character who, in bringing together Katya and Boris, unwittingly dooms them both. Eddy, with her lustrous voice and warm personality, fully inhabited the role: hers was a performance both believable and sympathetic. She made me wish that Janáček had written an operatic sequel for her character alone.
As Katya’s mother-in-law, Kabanicha, Elizabeth Byrne cast a strong presence, though one might imagine the character dominating the stage (and opera) even more. Still, she crowed shrewishly enough to earn some lusty hisses when she came to take her bow after the final curtain.
The leading male characters in this opera are among the less flattering in the genre. Still, Raymond Very sang with a sweet tone as Katya’s milquetoast lover, Boris, while Alan Schneider made an agreeably weak-willed Tichon, wholly controlled by his mother. James Demler’s Dikoy raged, but came across more of a blowhard than a real bully. Omar Najmi’s Vanya proved an appealing voice of reason and logic in a sea of simple-minded, bigoted locals.
Hildegard Bechtler’s austere sets well express the dreary monotony of Kátya Kabanová’s rural setting. Even so, there wasn’t anything particularly Russian about them: they seemed more Downton Abbey than anything else, the backdrop an anonymous Victorian mansion and countryside. It would have been nice had the sets reflected a deeper appreciation of the opera’s locale: the Volga, for instance, on the banks of which the opera opens, the lovers meet, and Katya meets her demise, is here all but an afterthought.
Also, neither the sets nor Tim Albery’s stage direction really captured the moments of warmth that the score radiates. On the contrary, the direction tended either towards heavy-handedness when subtlety was called for (as in the questionably explicit scene between Kabanicha and Dikoy) or otherwise was not overly concerned with detail (as in the staging’s neglect of the music’s many references to the river).
The BLO orchestra, led by David Angus, was, in the music’s softer moments, disappointing. Yes, the Shubert’s acoustics are famously bad. But there were inexcusable lapses of intonation and several solo passages sounded disjunct and patchy. The big climaxes sounded strongly, though I, for one, wished that more of the subtleties of Janáček’s pellucid scoring had come across.
Still, one must commend BLO for tackling Kátya Kabanová, even imperfectly. It’s a vital entry in the repertoire and one that any serious opera company needs to have under its belt. That this production doesn’t pack the punch or the immediacy of November’s The Love Potion is unfortunate, but it speaks at least partially to the necessity that BLO find (or be given) a home more suitable to its strengths and ambitions. The Shubert Theatre isn’t nearly as amenable a venue for opera as it should be and that’s a major problem for an opera company trying to grow itself and its audience.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.