at the Lyric Opera of Chicago
11/25, 11/28, 12/1, 12/4, 12/7, 12/12
There is misery in comfort and loneliness in companionship. Both of these dilemmas are tied together in a rigid, rural society in Katya Kabanova, now in production at the Lyric Opera. Though written in the 20th century by Czech composer Leoš Janáček, the opera is based on a Russian play from the mid-19th century that explores the romantic drama among the Volk, making the opera more a descendant of Puccini’s verismo style than of Wagner’s epic myths. With this production, the Lyric juxtaposes the royal opulence Ernani, with the drab simplicity of commoners’ lives—lives that are no less rife with timeless love and bottomless angst.
The title character, played by Karita Mattila, finds herself trapped in a loveless marriage to a simpleton, a decent man tragically obedient to his domineering mother. As a mid-19th-century woman, she seems paralyzed between her obedience to tradition, her religion, and her lust for freedom. In the end, tradition, as represented by the mother-in-law, wins but not before Katya engages in a week of mid-night trysts at a friend’s urging. The friend, an adopted orphan, has no familial obligations to the strict peasant moral code and is therefore free to pursue love on her own terms. Katya is not afforded such liberty and ends by adding her name to the long list of heroines who sacrifice their lives in order to advance women’s place in society: Hedda Gabbler and Edna Pontellier (The Awakening) to name a few.
Ms. Mattila, as Katya, is one of the more venerated stars to grace the Lyric’s stage so far this year. Having not heard her in person before, I was unsure what to expect; fortunately, I found her ability to befit her stature. The difference between good and great is sometimes hard to discern as you get closer to the top of the profession; all of the singers at the Lyric are good, but there is something intangible that sets Ms. Mattila apart. Perhaps it is her ability to go from extroverted fortissimo to introspective pianissimo in a single breath without getting buried by the large orchestra; perhaps it is her intimate knowledge of her voice, knowing when to be in perfect control and when to lose it. Whatever it is, it’s more than just hype; she brings you into Katya’s world, one that is wonderfully rich, complicated and on the verge of falling apart.
Janáček created in Katya a character that is fully formed, nearly tangible. The other characters are more one- and two-dimensional. Varvara, the orphan, is played by Liora Grondnikaite who brings to her character a sensual curiosity mixed with reckless abandon. This contrasts with Judith Forst’s Kabanicha, the austere mother-in-law, who was so believable as the incarnation of evil that the audience could not separate the two and booed her during the curtain call. Stuck in the middle are the male characters, which get short shrift from Janáček. Jason Collins’ Tichon, Katya’s husband, is clearly repressed, frustrated by his mother’s control over his life and erring on the side of being a pouting, teenage boy. As Boris, Katya’s lover, Brandon Jovanovich comes to the Lyric stage for the first time. In duets with Ms. Mattila, he matches her in volume and tone, and the two find a perfect blend. It is unfortunate that he does not get more of a chance to shine.
Writing in 1921, Janáček benefits from early explorations of human psychology and creates a moving drama devoid of excess. Katya may be of the same lineage as Madama Butterfly, but Janáček trims the fat to make his opera just over 2 hours with intermission. Lyric’s production mirrors the sparseness, affording the drama more psychological space in which to explore. The set mostly consists of a simple, monochromatic house allowing the audience views of inside and out. Houses, according to Freud, are dream representations of the mind, so it makes sense that the introspective journey Katya takes in Act I, Scene 2 takes place inside the house. In that same aria, Katya talks about flying like a bird, which a Freudian would say represents ambition; Janáček’s music helps paint a picture of her as a caged bird aspiring for meaningful love.
Musically, the opera also seems an extension of Puccini and his contemporaries. A lush, late-romantic outgrowth of tonality, it succeeds at creating an emotional landscape replete with thunderstorm. The conductor, Markus Stenz, was flawless in his coordination of singers and orchestra, although there were a few moments in the first act in which the singers had to compete with a build up of low frequencies.
All told, Katya Kabanova is a situational tragedy: the story of a woman who falls through the cracks of a society undergoing a tectonic shift in values. Lyric’s production creates moments of spine-tinging passion and heartbreaking conflict, allowing the audience to soar on Katya’s hopeful wings and then drown in her tears of guilt and self-reproach. It is steeped in realism without extravagant artifice; the work of a mature artist, the opera is highly effective and deeply moving.