One of the more daring decisions that Tony Award-winning — and first-time opera director — Garry Hynes made with Janacek’s opera Kat’a Kabanova is the choice of set. It is, essentially, a three-sided gray box, the walls of which are made of a series of panels and decorated with a single Christian cross. What makes it interesting is that the top of this box, a long gray slab, is only about halfway up to the Sottile’s proscenium, cutting off half of the stage’s total performance space. The effect is austere and claustrophobic.
It’s an unusual choice for one of theater’s most lavish, opulent genres, but it also happens to be an appropriate one for Kat’a Kabanova. Janacek’s opera tells the story of Kat’a (Betsy Horne), a young woman beaten down by her marriage to a spineless man named Tichon (Dennis Petersen) who cannot stand up to his overbearing mother, Kabanicha (Jennifer Roderer). Kabanicha lives with the couple and makes berating the both of them a kind of sport. When Kat’a succumbs to her love for another man, at the urging of her friend Varvara, she becomes so consumed by guilt that she confesses everything to her husband and mother-in-law before throwing herself into the Volga River to the sorrow of Tichon and the delight of the jealous Kabanicha. She is, to the end, completely boxed in.
When looking for the villain of this story, one would most likely point to Kabanicha, whose cruel words and sanctimonious moral superiority have made Kat’a’s life so joyless. She scolds Kat’a for being overly affectionate toward Tichon, then tells her she is not sad enough when he leaves on a trip. And while Kabanicha is certainly malignant, the real villain of Kat’a Kabanova is Kat’a’s own over-zealous religiosity.
At one point in the story, before Kat’a goes out to meet Boris for the first time, she describes herself as she was before she married, when she was happy, carefree, and, it seems, always in church. She saw visions of angels, she says, and heard heavenly choirs singing, moving her to tears of divine joy. It makes one think Kat’a would have been much happier in a convent. But while these feelings gave her such happiness before, it is this same religious excitability which persuades her that having feelings of any sort toward another man is a truly unforgivable sin, eventually driving her mad. This is in sharp contrast to the story’s other couple, Vanya, a scientist, and Varvara, Kat’a’s sister-in-law, who enjoy a happy love affair free of any guilt or fear over what God may think.
Horne has a lovely voice, and does Janacek’s soaring music proud, although her development of Kat’a as a character seemed odd at times. Horne, who is very tall, adopted a clumsy, stooped posture, presumably intended to show Kat’a’s repressed spirit. It was more distracting, however, than anything else.
But that was Horne’s single weak point. She excelled, especially, in the second act, when Kat’a loses her grip on reality (which was frankly tenuous to begin with). She stumbles on stage in her nightgown, unkempt hair swinging, and evokes intense compassion for the doomed Kat’a. She brings to mind the similarly situated Anna Karenina, shortly before she threw herself in front of the train.
Rolando Sanz is outstanding as the weak-willed Boris, Kat’a’s lover who is, like she, at the mercy of a bullying relative. Boris seems proof of poor Kat’a’s penchant for falling for spineless, selfish men — after spending several nights with her, and after she has confessed everything to her husband, instead of protecting her he tells her his uncle is sending him away and he must leave her.
Roderer has an especially difficult vocal job as Kabanicha. The cruel woman’s parts are staccato and rough, and Roderer managed them beautifully, never losing her sour scowl.
One of the opera’s highlights, however, belongs to Vanya (Alex Richardson) and Varvara (Megan Marino). The couple sing a beautiful folk tune toward the end of the first act, reminding us how sensitive Janacek was when it came to incorporating the rhythms and sounds of his country’s native music. Their chemistry, both as singers and actors, is perfect.
Musically, Kat’a Kabanova is wonderfully successful. There wasn’t a sour note from either the orchestra or the singers, and both gave the score and libretto its emotional due.
The only place where Kat’a might be said to be lacking is in the staging, which is fairly minimalist and monotonous. It’s clear that this was a deliberate choice, and like the box of a set, it’s true that it fits the overall theme of the opera.
Traditionalists may find it difficult to appreciate, but knowing that Kat’a was directed by an award-winning theater, not opera, director provides some insight into the staging style. Even if that style doesn’t appeal to all, Hynes can and should count her first foray into opera a success.