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Seen and Heard International Opera Review
Leoš Janáček: Kát’a Kabanová, soloists, The Metropolitan Opera, New York City, December 17 (Season Premiere) and 21, 2004 (BH)
Conductor: Jirí Belohlávek (Debut)
Production: Jonathan Miller
Set and Costume Designer: Robert Israel
Lighting Designer: Gil Wechsler
Stage Director: Paula Williams
Savel Prokofjevič Dikoj: Vladimir Ognovenko
Grigorjevič: Jorma Silvasti (Debut)
Marfa Ignatěvna Kabanová (Kabanicha): Judith Forst
Ivanyč Kabanov: Chris Merritt (Mark Baker on December
Townswoman: Charlotte Philley
For this Janáček masterpiece, Jonathan Miller has enlisted Robert Israel to graft sets and costumes from the palettes of Andrew Wyeth and Giorgio De Chirico, perhaps with some Edward Hopper thrown in. Each stark scene shows the Kabanov house from a different angle, with its grayish clapboard walls reminding me of the drab farmhouse in Kansas that gave the film In Cold Blood so much of its power. At the back of the raked stage of bleached wooden planks are other buildings, placed far in the distance in extreme forced perspective: a salmon-colored tower with an ornate top – perhaps a church – and a small greenish house, all spaced far apart, as isolated as the townspeople are in their understanding of each other (or at least, of the title character). The story’s inexorable progress is emphasized by the formality of the curtain swiftly, silently lowering between each scene, as the orchestra swells with emotions left hanging in the air. All of this forms the dark structure for one of the most icily thrilling evenings of the Met’s season.
As an aside, your writer was not familiar with this work, and will be using these live performances of Kát'a Kabanová as a sort of “learning laboratory,” seeing it at least two more times. Two years ago I did this with Jenufa, with which I was also unfamiliar, and couldn’t have been more delighted with the illumination that the multiple hearings provided. And all right: in the tradition of full and honorable disclosure, I confess I’m swept away by Karita Mattila, who is clearly in her prime and having a great year. But I hasten to add that she is hardly the sole draw of the evening. Backtracking further, I had actually seen this at the Met about ten years ago, long before I was a confirmed Janáček fan. The conductor was the great Sir Charles Mackerras, with Gabriela Beňačková in the title role. Although I enjoyed the evening, my appreciation of Janáček has advanced considerably since then, and further, this outing was a vastly different experience, thanks to the Met’s state-of-the-art subtitling system. (I suspect that I am not the only person in the audience with virtually no Czech at his disposal.)
Kát'a is cast in six scenes that form a model of concise storytelling with the economy of Wozzeck, and the briefest summary of the story will do. In the 1860s in a small Russian town called Kalinov, located on the Volga River, Kát’a is married to Tichon, but secretly admires another man (Boris) and is fearful of her own impulses. Despite her mental barricades against adultery, she eventually succumbs to her attraction, and then overcome with guilt, jumps into the river – as her mother-in-law presides with grim approval for Kát'a’s decision. It is not a tale that will have anyone beaming with joy at the generosity of one’s fellow human beings.
As the husband Tichon, Chris Merritt sings forcefully yet beautifully, with an anxious undercurrent mirroring the sad activities onstage. On the second night, he was suffering from a nasty cold and sadly forced to discontinue at the end of Act I, and after a twenty-minute break, Mark Baker hurriedly came to the rescue, earning fervent applause at the end for his last-minute rescue operation. As Boris (and in his Met debut), Jorma Silvasti brought a silvery tone and great pathos to the role, and wonderfully, also received ovations at the end of the evening. Judith Forst made a positively scary Kabanicha, with her haughty pronouncements emotionally flattening everyone within earshot, and inadvertently making me grateful for my relatively sane family structure. She also made the most of the opera’s final chilling lines, in which she matter-of-factly thanks everyone in town “for their generous assistance,” as Kát'a lies lifeless on the ground and the curtain falls.
In another impressive appearance, Magdalena Kožená created a fresh, delightful Varvara, whose intertwining with Mattila in Act I, Scene 2 was one of the eeriest highlights. “Eerie” because when these two women were vocalizing together, they created a few unearthly moments in which it is difficult to tell who is singing. As Mattila soared, dreaming of flying like a bird, the two singers’ impeccable tuning made the scene spring to life, in what for several friends was the indisputable highlight of the evening. Raymond Very was enchanting as Kudrjáš, who in Act II, Scene 2 began the scene leaning casually against the side of the house and offering a folk song while strumming a guitar. (Also notably, one of the composer’s longer phrases.) It’s a beautiful interlude, which Mr. Very not only sang with rapture, but also slightly underplayed, adding to the charm.
The opportunity to hear Ms. Mattila in her prime cannot be overstated, and she projects the work’s swirling clouds of torment and guilt with piercing accuracy. In a role considerably different from the overwhelming Salome she delivered last spring, she still offers precise singing with gorgeously pitched notes that fly out like laser beams, and inhabits the stage as few singers even try to do. (Perhaps more are taking their cues from her daring.) Accompanied by a winsome cluster of major chords, her first entrance is a model of simplicity, as she slowly walks to onstage dressed in creamy white, in stark contrast to Israel’s charcoal and black attire for the townspeople. In addition to that scene in Act II with Kožená, Mattila totally commands Act III, in a long sequence filled with increasing doubt and desperation, in which she whispers of birds flying over her grave, before running upstage to the edge of the Volga and leaping into the darkness. I count myself lucky to live in an age with so many memorable voices, but it is rare to find one that is this spectacular, and housed in the body of a genuine actress. My hunch is that if she were to appear in a non-singing production, she might be as comfortable in Ibsen or Chekhov.
Janáček’s idiom is more declamatory than some composers, with the rhythms of speech flowing constantly. It’s as if the score never stands still – the musical equivalent of watching a meadow of reeds waving in the wind. Many passages evoke the composer’s Taras Bulba, written about the same time and also immersed in Janáček’s fascination with Russian culture. Nowhere to be seen are the long lines of Richard Strauss, nor the hot-blooded drama of Verdi, nor the giddy precision of Mozart. Further, Kát’a has no large set pieces similar to the moving “Meditation and Prayer” in Act II of the composer’s Jenufa. Here the orchestra shimmers with hundreds of tiny, glittering phrases. Interestingly, the most frenzied and violent scene is the shortest: in Act III, Scene 1, an enormous thunderstorm breaks out as Kát'a confesses her indiscretion, and the orchestra rises to a blood-curdling climax, the only real door-rattler in the entire work.
Jirí Belohlávek is stunning in his Met debut, eliciting raindrop clarity from the Met Orchestra, who don’t sound a bit as if they’ve been playing virtually every night of the week since last October. I’m familiar with his work from recordings, most notably his gleaming Martinů Double Concerto with the Czech Philharmonic (on Chandos), and am pleased to report that he is just as riveting in live performance. His eloquent command of the flow of the score consistently impresses, and he has that Janacek “surge” – the composer’s unique ebb and flow – down in spades. A friend was in awe of the sound of the Met ensemble, and indeed, they seemed to be enjoying themselves tremendously. We could have been sitting in Prague. As an aside, I notice that in MusicWeb’s Concerts of the Year 2004, Bernard Jacobson had some warm words for Belohlávek’s appearance with the Philadelphia Orchestra earlier this year. I do hope this outstanding conductor will return soon.
Three more performances remain, including on Christmas Day, which will also be the Met’s weekly radio broadcast around the world. (I notice in the program that Friday’s opening was only the fifteenth performance in the company’s history, so this opera is not exactly suffering from overexposure.) However, there seems to be a contingent of potential operagoers who are not pleased with the choice of Christmas fare. (A radio station in Cleveland is apparently scrapping the broadcast in favor of Hansel and Gretel.) My feeling is that a celebratory day deserves to be marked by a production of ineffably high artistic quality, even if it contains sober subject matter. (Exactly where the line falls between “sober” and “revolting” is a fair question, although Kát’a is certainly not the latter.) As Harlow Robinson comments in his cogent program notes, “Like any great work of art, Kát’a Kabanová resembles no other. It stands as a profoundly original and organic masterpiece, forged from the composer’s deep humanity and long-overlooked genius.” Here, the impact and intelligence on display, not to mention the blazing musical talents of those onstage and the considerable contributions of the production team, leave you walking out of the hall exhilarated and transformed.