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
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.