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S & H International Opera Review

JANACEK: KÁT'A KABANOVÁ, San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 15 November 2002 (HS)


With Karita Mattila in the lead, Hanna Schwarz as the nasty mother-in-law and Donald Runnicles conducting, San Francisco Opera's production of Janacek's hyper-romantic opera hits the target musically. That, and the strangely Euro production style, provides more evidence of how the Pamela Rosenberg era is shaping up.

Seen in the third of six performances, this Kát'a sizzles with strong singing across the board and a remarkably seamless rendering of the orchestral music from Runnicles, not heretofore known as a Janacek specialist. He shows a grasp of the score's ebb and flow, the Puccinian climaxes throbbing mightily, the insistent rhythms never flagging.

Mattila goes beyond mere performance as Kát'a, the sexually frustrated wife in small-town Russia who lavishes herself on a young suitor and dies by throwing herself into the Volga. Mattila simply inhabits the role. There is not a false movement in her acting; the voice is thrilling in its power, accurate, clear and endlessly expressive. When she reacts angrily to her foster child's suggestion that she take up with Boris, a whole range of emotions play out in just a few seconds -- first insult, then anger, and fear, and underneath it all sexual longing. It takes a great singing actor to manage that, and Mattila does it again and again.

The other major presence is mezzo-soprano Hanna Schwarz. Twenty- five years after she made her house debut as Fricka in "Das Rheingold," the voice has lost some of its plangency but still has an edgy power that is perfect for Kabanicha, the stiff-backed, venal mother-in-law who all but pushes Kát'a to her fate. The rest of the cast is solid, including house debuts from American tenor Richard Decker as Tichon, Kát'a's wimp of a husband; Dutch tenor Albert Bonnema as Boris, the other man; German mezzo Ute Döring as Varvara, the foster daughter who encourages Kát'a's infidelity; and Russian baritone Victor Chernomortsev as Dikoy, Boris' domineering father.

For the most part, the production works, although doing the first and second acts without intermission makes for an uneven evening, leaving the third act to go by in a flash, hardly longer than the intermission that precedes it. Erich Wonder's minimalist set, with its revolving box at the center, gradually disintegrates scene by scene, a reflection of Kát'a's state of mind.

More troubling is the few jarring missteps. Director Johannes Schaaf by and large focuses the action on the interaction of the characters, a good thing, but lays on some anachronistic touches that don't always work. I didn't mind Varva showing up for her assignation in anachronistic jeans and sweater, and the trench-coat worn by Boris (what's this German fascination with film noir trench-coats?) envelops Kát'a seductively when they finally embrace but it takes a stretch of the imagination to make an inch of water in the living room of the Kabanov house stand in for the Volga in the final scene, especially since we never actually see the Volga in the first scene, of which the finale is supposed to be a bookend.

When Kát'a collapses into this giant puddle, it seems as if she has simply fainted, not offed herself by drowning. To make it clear, Schaaf has three men in emergency room doctor suits, looking for all the work like a hazmat team, lift Kát'a into a metal box on a gurney, one of them shining a flashlight in her eyes. I get it, she's dead but still boxed in by the stiff morals of her time, but all the extra foofaraw does is stanch the flow of the final scene.

It's not clear what this says about Pamela Rosenberg, who took over as general director in 2001. This is the first season for which she is responsible for the artistic decisions. If a pattern is emerging, it is that Rosenberg's ear for new singers -- and there are more house debuts this year than any I can recall in 25 years in San Francisco -- has generally been rewarding, but she has shown a distressing tendency to allow directors to ladle on unnecessary flourishes, as described above. Rosenberg promised thought-provoking productions, which "Kát'a" generally is, but why, for example, are the two maids in the first scene of "Kát'a" covered in yellow and black stripes, like bumblebees?

The company recently announced that, due to a $7.7 million shortfall in the company's revenues, next season will omit Weber's "Der Freischütz" and replace Rimsky-Korsakov's "Le Coq d'Or" with yet another run of Mozart's "Die Zauberflöte" in the David Hockney production. There's still plenty of fresh meat on next year's menu, including Virgil Thomson's "The Mother of Us All," Ferruccio Busoni's "Doktor Faust," Janacek's "The Cunning Little Vixen" and Shostakovich's "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk." Letís hope the chefs cook it up nicely.

Harvey Steiman

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