The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Lyric Opera of Chicago: Kat'a Kabanova - Miller production, Karita Mattila in qualified success at repeat of 2004 Met triumph. November, 2009.

Memories come flooding back. Two of my best operatic experiences of this past decade, to open a new mil, have involved my favorite opera of Leos Janacek, Kat’a Kabanova. It was also great to have seen Elisabeth Soderstrom in the part here in Houston in the early 1980’s - paired with a fine, since little heard from Kabanicka (Jan Curtis) but it was as though as having occurred in a vacuum; both production and conducting (John DeMain) were so glib - DeMain’s only attempt at Janacek while here.

The next Janacek to see here was the very fine David Alden production of this Dallas had seen already (starring Elena Prokina and Judith Forst), starring here Catherine Maliftano and as Boris on short notice, Raymond Very. As expressionistic as it was, enhanced by the intense musical leadership of Asher Fisch and played in one act – though slightly undercut by hard look about Maliftano (though singing and acting the part very well) and by some tremolo from the Kabanicka - it stopped short of going too far this way. It also has proved one of David Alden’s very finest productions (as revived very recently by English National Opera) and also the most riveting evening of musical theater I had attended yet at Wortham Center downtown.

Equally fine and not to be under-rated is the Jonathan Miller production from the Met - loaned out to Lyric for this. Equal to Soderstrom in the part, maybe only other time thus far, was Karita Mattila in the title role. Capturing the innocence of Kat’a, her intense guilt feelings, remorse, psychological depth that must invest all this, intense desire for freedom, and soaring line to accompany all this made Mattila’s identification with Kat’a complete. Fortunately some of the same elements of her interpretation have persisted to this day, but sad to report here, not quite the same flexibility of voice to carry it all forward – with Lyric the easier place to sing than the Met.

The Met broadcast played Christmas Day and featured Judith Forst (Kabanicka), leading a very strong supporting cast (Silvasti, Merritt, Very as Kudrjash, Kozena, Ognovenko). The only thing that had me wondering was with Jiri Belohlavek’s relaxation of dramatic tension to perhaps beyond a good extent, even though moments of relaxation for nocturnal tryst should be palpable. Belohlavek appeared quintessentially attuned to Janacek (as fine rendition of Osud at the Proms proved recently) and for Act Two, that helped make up for some gap in tackling this score.

Belohlavek benefited from much focused interaction among cast of tremendous depth the Met put together – and also plentiful rehearsal time the Met still provided its guest conductors at that time. Very oddly, it was played on Christmas across the U.S. - a day after Houston had been dusted off with snow (first time to ever happen Christmas Eve) and hours before first news breaking of disaster in Indonesia that wretchedly took too many lives. It was a crisp, clear afternoon here; once Kat’a Kabanova finished, I had to suspend joining holiday festivities to go biking outdoors for a half hour to come up for air.

It was still evident from excellent investment in the text that the Miller production of Kat’a Kabanova was most likely one among best handful of productions the Met opened while under Joe Volpe (along with Miller’s Nozze di Figaro, the Wernicke Frau ohne schatten, Dorn Tristan und Isolde especially once revived for Met in HD, Flimm Fidelio starring Mattila – and under-rated Don Giovanni from 2004 - Marthe Keller).

Markus Stenz made a highly coveted Lyric Opera debut to conduct Kat’a Kabanova and had a good cast on hand to achieve almost similar results as heard from the Met five years ago. The soulful tug in the Lyric orchestra cellos during the prelude and piquant accents in light percussion and winds (with sleigh ride motif) were very apt, but also a tendency, toward maintaining a familiar romantic aura to the sound, to shy away from making angular as indicated some of Janacek’s rougher edges. Broken horn ostinati cutting into the texture for accompanying provocative dialogue from supporting cast on stage got underestimated.

Karita Mattila, as Kat’a, started out very promisingly, with Kat’a as we first see her under such heavy reproach. Though perhaps a little mature in timbre and heavier than ideal, she still brought out some of the soaring line in her extended scene with Varvara, concerning the birds, how much Kat’a would enjoy being like them – oblique reference to Puccini’s Madama Butterfly that Janacek had seen and loved. In desperate pleas to her husband toward end of Act One, Mattila affectingly took on some hardness, rigidity one associates with the Kabanicka, but therein also laid a risk of undercutting later passages.

It was still very evident that this was repertoire that still would suit her voice better than the heavier Puccini roles. Sense of guilt at first meeting Boris here sounded truly overwhelming, but she then moments later allowed both voice and persona to free up for sense of Kat’a being able to at least halfway enjoy this moment of freedom. It was also evident however that the very top of the voice, any notes lying more than a half-tone above the staff are no longer so reliable as they once were. Certainly the final monologues of the part brought to mind, in despair expressed, those in final scene of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk – with Shostakovich having sought out Janacek’s musical example as well for similar social situation between the two heroines. Katerina, in the Shostakovich, is a part that would be ideal for Mattila to pick up very soon.

Katya’s plea to Boris to give alms to every beggar he meets made it a little too far into the throat to have the still resolve of someone so innocent as Kat’a is and determined to also end one’s life. One left this encounter with what had been a great interpretation of the title role with a little tougher or harder impression than desirable.

Judith Forst repeated her tough, malevolent Kabanicka from the Met five years ago, ideally so. It is not in the music or text to play the Kabanicka as victim of the social situation, as much as a continuing perpetrator of it, but one still sensed some hint of a woman trapped into the way she behaves or too willingly succumbing to her role as ever omniscient, omnipotent matriarch of the village. Even a hint of some warmth would come through vocally. Forst, while still playing the Kabanicka as the villain she is, also humanized the part, lifting it above caricature and thus making it more frightening than could a stock villain instead. Together with a little fruitiness to the timbre, she also found some of the Slavic wildness to Janacek’s writing. This joined her Pique-Dame Countess in Houston recently as one of the finest things I have ever heard her do. This was an altogether supreme and worthy achievement with this part, and one clearly lived in for some time with authority to show for it as well.

Brandon Jovanovich was very near as successful as Boris. He revealed fine baritonal depth to low notes, and free extension to an easily produced top. One found a Boris here, if not as acutely specific to its interpretative demands as Jorma Silvasti, more than close enough toward getting it just about entirely. There was a diffident shyness here, definitely which he allowed to be exposed in the final scene for Boris’s not being able or willing to stick around and up for what is right, regardless the cost. The sincere passion he feels for Kat’a and strong desire to break free, and also heavy sense of apprehension with going farther than he should with what is at stake were very apt.

Jason Collins was the sweet-toned, lyric Tikhon, but to a fault. As utterly determined, choleric the Kabanicka is, she might have decided by time action takes place that it may be her son’s fault things go so miserably. Even as pathetically impotent a character this is, he still makes his feelings, though ineffective toward any goal, heard –as Chris Merritt clearly did so at the Met. With a little more risk-taking for Tikhon, Collins may have it. Otherwise, this thankless part just blends into the wallpaper instead. Andrew Shore also started light as Dikoy – curious also being Alberich at Bayreuth under Thielemann (for one more summer), excerpt for hint of Bayreuth bark to indicate it here.. Low notes lacked depth. Judith Forst played their one scene together slightly more passively than usual, but fortunately Shore rose to the occasion for the dispute with Kudryash over the origins of electricity for what helped make an exciting start to Act Three.

Casting of the younger couple provided curious results. Liora Grodnikaite was the distinctively highly energetic Varvara - with tone having a cutting edge to it, Varvara’s interaction, especially with Kat’a, seemed more on edge, pushy, aggressive than is the norm. What playful innocence Varvara has, even if it looked it, vocally got pushed to the wayside. Maturation on Varvara’s part was felt, in her observing the consequence of what has transpired, but still within context of somewhat unvarying tone and attack.

Matching Forst in being ideal casting, but the very opposite in terms of character, was the Kudryash of Garrett Sorenson. This is for sure a future Boris, Laca, Albert Gregor. Everything about Kudryash got characterized here with easily produced top and slightly richer tone than may be always the norm. Sorenson managed to keep things light for this part, but also enlightened what progressive, ambitious characteristics and motives Kudryash has. Sorenson made on purpose a little heaviness in accent with the first folk song he gets in Act Two, but with all words and accents pointed just right. Kathleen Leemhuis made the eager, saucy Glasa - Amber Wagner as Feklusa and Paul La Rosa as Kulagin fine as well. The hearing of Boris and Kat’a toward very end of Act Two sounded too ‘echo chamber’ to be sufficiently backstage.

Markus Stenz, according to expectations, brought consistently good line, sweep, and ardor to this auspicious assignment. Until he got to the passages most specifically rehearsed for this – Act Three apparently – his Janacek suggested a glibly internationalized feel. Stenz’s objective take was clear, as was for the first two acts certainly lusty engagement with the music’s broader folk elements. Opening of Act Two had the slightly uneasy sway and swagger to it one seeks, then scene with Dikoy and Kabanicka good detachment as well. Support for his singers was consistently supple, including notably for Kat’a’s brief monologue about the birds midway through Act One.

The love scene in Act Two provided fine contrast between graphic depiction from Mattila, orchestra alike of her utter despondency or dread at attempting tryst with Boris and then acceptance with new shaft of light and lyricism to flood out the music, revealing that at last the stronger desire has won out - so mercilessly repressed until now. For sure, an oasis of temporary peace, real satisfaction follows. Denying at least in spirit what Janacek might indicate as to tempo relationships, Stenz became bent on lingering over so much. While the music describes so well stillness, a current carrying the action forward underneath and the utterly ephemeral character of the situation are still paramount. Such got missed here; Janacek could have almost been writing Jenufa again instead. The three fortissimo eruptions just past fading away voices of Varvara and Kudryash consequentially got mildly deflated.

Stenz then very effectively sustained line in Act Three through the ruminative laments of Kat’a in her despairing solitude, with light openly let in to anticipate and continue momentarily through Kat’a’s relief at opportunity to see Boris one last time. The violence and rapid interplay of all variety of contrasting elements during the storm were such, without for making special display, to prove Stenz fully on top of all issues involved in conducting this - what may have been subdued for getting insufficient rehearsal time for earlier scenes. The cumulative surge through the final two or three pages of this paralleled his very well stressed accenting with which he infused closing pages of Act One, bringing a very resourceful Lyric debut and this masterpiece to a fine close, with Kabanicka’s cool, cutting lines from Forst to cap it all off.

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