Angela Allen

Unoccupied seats are often the price an opera company pays when it tries something new and off the oft-beaten path of French and Italian opera. There were plenty of empty rows opening night, February 25, at the Seattle Opera, but perhaps by the end of the Katya Kabanova run, seats will fill up in McCaw Hall. The opera continues March 8, 10 and 11.

Most big American opera companies endlessly repeat the same old top ten greatest hits, so with this unusual choice, new-ish Seattle Opera general director Aidan Lang (he’s been in Seattle for almost three years replacing longtime emperor Speight Jenkins) shows his guts, his imagination, his unconventional opera savvy, and his faith in Seattle audiences. And he delivers a tear-jerking tragedy that might even encourage Puccini fans to grab some of those available seats.

Katya, never before staged in Seattle, is one of Leos Janacek’s (1854-1928) later tragic operas. It debuted in 1921 in Brno in the present-day Czech Republic, and this SO version is wholly new. You might have heard The Cunning Little Vixen; bets are that opera begins and ends your Janacek repertoire.

The Czech composer, born in Moravia, was a contemporary of Giacomo Puccini, but his musical influence is much less powerful than the Italian’s. Katya lacks the familiarity and unreserved melodiousness of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly or of SO’s previous production, Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata – three tragedies that center on trapped young women. Janacek’s work didn’t make it across the Atlantic until fairly recently, and Europe, even the Czech Republic and former Czechoslovakia, had been reluctant to embrace him until 1950 or so, Lang said in his recent SO podcast about the opera.

Fortunately, SO does a creative job of making the piece come alive for today’s audiences.

The Seattle production is performed in Czech, admittedly the first time I’ve heard an opera sung in that language, a far cry from fluid, easily articulated Italian. Native Czech speaker Oliver von Dohnanyi, a Slovak maestro at Seattle Opera for the first time, conducted, and it was his pulse that captured the rhythm of the spoken language in the music. There are no repeated lines. The sung text sounds both conversational and theatrical, and so despite the unfamiliar music, interspersed with folk tunes, we are drawn into the story immediately.

Katya did not seem overwhelmingly foreign to me, though I am an unabashed Puccini fan. Certainly, it was different from Italian tragedies, but we can digest and appreciate more than we think, especially when the story tells a universal, timeless tragedy.

Katya is a sad, sad story from beginning until the end, two hours and 15 minutes later, intermission included. Katya is a housewife, strangled in marriage by her weak husband Tichon (Scottish tenor Nicky Spence), who beats her and kowtows to his dictatorial mother, Kabanicha.

Soprano Melody Moore performed the role of Katya opening night, Feb. 25. She sang with intense and calibrated emotion, but she did not come off as fragile. (She has sung some robust Wagner roles.) She juggles the role with Corinne Winters, SO’s Violetta in this season’s La Traviata. 

Katya is silenced by her mother-in-law, a dyed-in-jewel-colored-wool villainess sung by Victoria Livengood, who pours every ounce of her strong mezzo and callous body language into her heartless character. She is a villain to reckon with, and Livengood relishes playing this part.

To make matters worse, poor Katya lives in a small gossip-hungry town, done up here in 1950s Americana, an era when women were cookie-cuttered into stifling roles and social convention. She sings that she wants to “fly away like a bird.” Nature is her salve, and to find further relief, she has an affair with Boris (sung by tenor Joseph Dennis, the twin of Joshua Dennis, who was Alfredo in SO’s La Traviata). Joseph Dennis was the only singer whose voice was too often overwhelmed by the orchestra.

Boris is an outsider, an urbane one, visiting from Moscow. To secure his inheritance, he must regularly visit his dreadful Uncle Dikoj (bass Stefan Szkafarowsky), a dead ringer for mean, short, controlling relatives. Dikoj and the evil Kabanicha are an item, if a wacky and perverse one.

American Echoes

To reach contemporary audiences, stage director Australian Patrick Nolan and his team came up with the ‘50s-in-America concept, complete with sweater sets, flowered wall paper, and matching living room chairs. Nolan grafts this onto Janacek’s pared-down interpretation of Alexander Ostrovsky’s play, The Storm, set in the small Russian town of Kalinov in the mid-19th century. In this opera, the references to Moscow, where Katya’s lover, Boris, lives, are numerous. (Boris is sent to Siberia by the end of opera.)

So we’re not exactly right here in America. We go back and forth in place and in time. This could be confusing, but I adjusted. It was like watching a movie, where protagonists contend with various environments.

To further boost the contemporary quotient, Nolan incorporates Genevieve Blanchett’s video work. Shot in the great Northwest, the footage shows swaths of giant rolling waves and nodding fir trees to reflect Katya’s romantic view of nature as opposed to the harsh psychological circumstances she lives in. The video contrasts with the first act’s static picket-fence set, as if we were experiencing two different operas. Then a vivid electric storm scene at the beginning of the third act by lighting designer Australian Mark Howett amps up the special effects to give us yet another view.  All these changes seem to offer a more cinematic fluid view of Katya’s world than a simple unmoving set would.

Amid it all, the all-Australian design team, new to Seattle Opera, stirs up a thrilling, if not exactly cohesive, visual brew that keeps us waiting for more. What will happen NEXT?

In the final overwhelming tragic scene, when Katya decides to off herself after admitting her affair with Boris to the entire town, we follow her to the river. Dying is, paradoxically, the only way she can live with herself. What a double bind! She sings like a bird, her back to us, before she jumps into the river. This last scene is a full-blown tear-jerker, not unlike when Madama Butterfly’s Cio-Cio-san sings “Un bel di” (“One fine day we’ll see a wisp of smoke arising”), her back to us, her hope waning, the music soaring.