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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Opera Review: A Volga Display of Power

Juillard Opera mounts Kat'a Kabanova.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Bad romance: Boris (Gerard Schneider, left) woos the heroine (Felicia Moore) in Juilliard's Kát'a Kabanova.Photo by Hiroyuki Ito for the Juilliard School. 
In retrospect, it is a pity that the Czech composer Leos Janacek did not find fame and fortune as an opera composer until the 1916 premiere of the revised version of Jenůfa, when the composer was 62. Káťa Kabanová, based on a Russian play, was written five years later. On Tuesday night, at the third of three performances at Peter Jay Sharp Theater, the Juilliard Opera showed that this rarely performed tragedy remains one of the composer's most potent creations.

Janacek is the most important Czech composer of the 20th century. His mature style arrived with Kat'a. In addition to the canny use of folk songs and rhythms, the opera centers on a flowing "river" motive that depicts the Volga, the setting of the drama. As the curtain rose, the cast stood stock-still onstage, moving only when each character's leitmotif sounded in the orchestra. In the pit, Anne Manson led a flowing performance of this complex, driven work, capturing the melodic treasures and hard-edged rhythms that thrust the three short acts forward with terrifying force.

Kát'a is a hard opera to cast. The central role calls for a dramatic soprano of power, flexibility and inflection, unafraid of  the upper register and needing a voice with a solid core that can sustain the voice in those airy heights. It is a tragic role, playing out as if Tristan und Isolde was set in a Russian bourgeois family. In short, Kat'a discovers escape from her loveless marriage to Tichon in the arms of the handsome Boris. Wracked by guilt, she confessed the tryst and commits suicide.

In this role, soprano Felicia Moore provided a complex and nuanced portrait of this troubled girl who becomes a woman and finally, a tragic heroine in the opera's final pages. Ms. Moore had the acting equipment to play Kát'a's voyage of self-discovery. This came out in the two big Act II duets with her sister-in-law Varvara and her lover Boris. In the great final liebestod that comes before her watery death, Ms. Moore proved unafraid of the role's upper reaches and elevated this simple story from family drama to genuine pathos.

Standing in her way is the Kabanicha, the original mother-in-law from hell. Contralto Sara Couden displayed a strange instrument. Her voice had a steely sheen that recalls the old style of countertenor singing. And yet, this production was not afraid to show the passionate, sexual side of this good lady, enacting her Act II tryst with the lecherous Dikoj and underlining the Kabanicha's hypocrisy. The final scene with her Tichon over Kát'a's dead body was bone-chilling stuff, as the lonely, repressed woman sought to connect, first with the horrified village and then with her son in a moment of utter, selfish need.

Although singing with an announced back injury, tenor  Gerard Schneider impressed as Boris, Kát'a's love interest. More tenors: Sam Levine as Kudrjáš and Miles Mykkanen did a good job of distinguishing  Kudrjáš and Tichon (respectively) although the two singers looked somewhat interchangeable. (You knew Mr. Mykkanen was Tichon because he had the vodka bottle!) Bass Alex Rosen made a meal of Dikoj, Boris' abusive father, drawing real laughs with his comments about electricity in the Act III storm scene, and soprano Samantha Hankey was a vivacious Varvara. A superb English translation by Yveta Synek Graff. made the text clear for all assembled, essential in this most dramatic opera.

There are a lot of scene changes in these short acts. Stephen Wadsworth chose a modular, versatile acting surface. The design by Charlie Corocoran melded the indoors and the outdoors (something also done in Mr. Wadsworth's Cosí fan tutte) through the use of creative lighting, grassy turf walks and a stand of birch trees stage left that doubled (thanks to a trick of the light) as the high windows of the Kabanov household. In the third act, as Boris leaves and Kát'a's world collapses, her bed rose to a terrifying height, hanging, dangled over the stage at the climax of the drama. This visual was a testament to rigging,simple and effective. It embodied the failure of the Kabanov marriage and the collapse of the natural order of things. 

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