With Leoš Janáček’s Kátya Kabanová at the Shubert on Friday, Boston Lyric Opera continues its string of vital, provocative productions of works off the beaten path. Kátya was part of the astonishing outpouring of music that came at the end of Janáček’s life from his infatuation with Kamila Stösslová, a married woman more than 30 years his junior. For most of their decade-long relationship Kamila did not return Janáček desires, but she did nothing to discourage them. The affair began in 1917, when Janáček was 62 and Kamila was 27, and continued until the composer’s death in 1928. The opera’s considerable genius can be seen to stem from the overwhelming intensity of this attraction. The fiercely compressed setting of The Storm, by Alexander Ostrovsky runs 100 minutes with no intermission. Ostrovksy was one of the leading lights of Russian mid-19th-century realism, and much of the difficulty in appreciating the work come from the contradiction implied in “realistic opera.”
Janáček’s late music is filled with energy and impatience, as if the composer had so much to express he couldn’t afford to linger. A typical passage is built over one or more rapid, repeated instrumental figures, frequently written without concern for the difficulty posed to the player, whose struggle contributes to the feeling of urgency, of straining at limits. The vocal lines are often derived from Czech speech-rhythms, and although they lock into the pulse established by the orchestra, their emphases and outlines are often independent. The melodic outlines are jagged and often cruel, requiring vocalists who are confident in the extremes of their range. The harmonies frequently bite, but also melt into lyricism without warning. Audiences expecting elaborate set pieces and lush singing will be disappointed: Janáček’s preferred narrative device is the monologue. One must listen with two foci, as both the vocal line and the orchestra rapidly shift mood and meaning. The sung lines often stay close to speech and express the surface emotion, while the orchestra conjures subtexts which are often at odds with the words.
That vigorous instrumental writing and mastery of levels of meaning enliven an otherwise grim story of adultery: Kátya (soprano Elaine Alvarez) is married to Tichon (tenor Alan Schneider), who is weak and dominated by his mother, Kabanicha (soprano Elizabeth Byrne). Kátya knows she is trapped in her marriage. She is already in love with Boris (tenor Raymond Very), and he with her, though they have met only once. Tichon must travel for business, and Kátya begs to go with him – when he rejects that, he begs her to make her swear she will not look at another man. Alas, Kátya’s confidante Varvara (mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy) knows both of Kátya’s dreams of freedom and her love for Boris, and so conspires to bring the two together in a garden at night. Despite Kátya’s apprehension, she nevertheless goes on the assignation and the inevitable occurs; upon which follow confession, denunciation, and death.
In their gorgeous and intelligent production, Stage Director Tim Albery and Set Designer/Costumer Hildegard Bechtler have not entirely solved the problems posed by the action of the play. Kabanicha’s iron-fisted, moralistic conventionality is (thankfully but unintentionally) comic today, as are Tichon’s abject submission and Kátya’s emotional weakness. Boris is no prize either: he is heavily indebted to his wealthy uncle Dikoy (bass-baritone James Demler) and no more certain about his position in the world. They are a couple whose love is tentative and whose will is feeble: they are passive targets whom society destroys. This makes for an awkward evening, where words meant to wreak terror and enforce repression instead cause laughter, and where one might tire of the hand-wringing and indecision of the principals.
The mostly abstract setting, constructed of large walls of green and blue, colors, is textured like stone or like elaborate but faded wallpaper. These combine with angled lighting (by Peter Mumford) to create a paradoxically spacious claustrophobia presaging Kátya’s unhappy end. The clothes and few spare furnishings evoked pictures from the turn of the previous century, placing the action firmly in “the past”, and requiring the performers to play the extremities of the libretto straight.
The performances show talent and commitment. Alvarez’s voice is powerful and penetrating, which gave Kátya’s hysteria some muscle, although the character remains passive throughout. Opera News compared her to Callas, and it is plausible insofar as it is a voice both impressive but challenging. Very was quite a contrast, with an elastic and sensitive production. When Janáček required him to leap into the vocal stratosphere, it came as a sudden expansion and contraction of emotion—an outburst from a man who can’t sustain passion. The opera didn’t really permit them to have chemistry; the union of the lovers is heard at a distance, as they sing ecstatically to one another off-stage—but they nevertheless conjured something touching and true as they navigated their clumsy courtship.
Byrne, Schneider and Demler played the shrew, milquetoast and bully respectively without winking at the audience or blunting the unattractive qualities of their characters. Byrne even garnered some appreciative booing at curtain call.
Yet the show was nearly stolen, and horrors of the story nearly redeemed, by Eddy’s Varvara and Omar Najmi as Vanya her beau. Eddy was throughout a shaft of light and delight, her voice warm and inviting. The couple provided a glimmer of hope in the work. For Vanya the river that will ultimately consume Kátya is a marvel of nature. The garden scene that seals the doom of Kátya and Boris’ opens a vigorous and jaunty folk tune, rendered with humor, happiness and a bit of heroic dash by Najmi. Varvara is blind to the neuroses of the primary pair; she is so happy around Vanya that her brightness washes their dark currents off the stage. When Kátya and Boris leave the stage together, their off-stage encounter happens at the same time that Vanya and Varvara share vodka and roll around in a happy embrace. (The one other moment of physical closeness in the play is, I believe, created by the director: he brings the elderly Kabichina and Dikoy together in a scene where he is drunk and she dresses him down. It is a questionable decision at best, though it did set the theater abuzz all through the ensuing pause between scenes). The handful of smaller parts were filled out with fine BLO regulars: Chelsea Handler, Heather Gallagher, and David McFerrin.
Under the redoubtable David Angus, the orchestra tackled the challenges of the opera fearlessly, but the almost total lack of reverberation in the Shubert drained the music of its richness, and left the players pitilessly exposed.
BLO presented the opera in English with surtitles, but it might have been better to keep in the original Czech, and provide no texts at all. The characterizations would have been just as vivid, the outline of the piece would have been just as clear, and the datedness of the story would have been less intrusive. Altogether though, we beheld an intriguing but frustrating night of theater. The BLO provided a feast for the eyes, a parade of sharply drawn characters, and an acoustically dry but vigorous realization of a fascinating score. It’s worth it for that—and for those few flashes of joy in the garden.