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Duisberg, Deutsche Oper am Rhein
Before Stanislavsky's development of his
method of psychological realism in the performance of drama, there was the Russian
playwright Alexander Ostrovsky (1823-1886) whose four dozen or more plays established
realism on the Russian stage (paving the way for Chekhov). Perhaps Ostrovsky's best known
works are The Forest and The Storm;
the latter is the source of the libretto for Janacek's opera Kat'a Kabanova, a
melancholy and evocative work whose central theme seems a pitched battle between id and
superego, sensuality and repression, sin and virtue, freedom and emotional imprisonment.
Kat'a is a gentle soul, attuned to nature (flowers, birds) and deeply pious. She's married to Tichon, a weak man utterly subjugated by his domineering, imperious, impossible-to-satisfy, and abusive widowed mother, Marfa. When Tichon is leaving on a business trip, Kat'a begs him to stay, or alternatively, to take her with him; she yearns for another man and fears what might happen in Tichon's absence. Her foreboding is realized in a rapturous affair with Boris, a young man whose inheritance is held hostage by the approval of his rich uncle, Dikoj.
Tichon returns to town as a great thunderstorm is breaking. Kat'a, consumed by guilt, makes a public confession of her adultery. Later, she has a final scene with Boris, whose uncle is sending him away. When he has gone, she sings: "So peaceful, so lovely, and I must die" and she throws herself into the river to drown.
San Francisco Opera's new production of the opera is a handsome one, based on a unit set, a straightforward structure of simple lines and solid weight that is rotated to various positions representing aspects of the Kabanov home along the banks of the Volga . Louvered windows look out to the river which is seen by the audience first through the use of an opening scrim and later via drop down panels along the side of the house.
Furnishings are minimal with some surreal effects utilized, such as umbrellas with lighted shafts for the townspeople during the storm scene and a large silhouetted bird behind Kat'a which rises as she commits suicide, the latter effect neither inappropriate in view of the text, nor particularly inspired.
Other flourishes include a dalliance between Marfa and Dikoj, with Marfa revealed to be wearing a black leather merry widow, and a final scene including a metal gurney that closes over the corpse as if it were contaminated.
But this is not an opera about spectacle; these effects were minor blips in a beautifully performed musical drama anchored by the riveting performance of Karita Mattila as Kat'a, her first performance of the role. With a soprano instrument of great clarity and power enough to soar without a hint of harshness, Mattila delivered the complex Janacek musical line with seeming effortlessness. Her stage presence is solidly confident and she fully inhabits this role with its combination of emotional neediness, unfulfilled joy in the world around her, and guilt-ridden misery.
Also notable is the performance of Ute Döring as Varvara, Kat'a's confidante. Younger and freer than Kat'a, Varvara is able to escape Marfa's stifling dominance by running away with her beau, providing a contrast to Kat'a, who is not sufficiently liberated from the old ways to do so. With musicality to match Mattila's, Döring filled out their scenes together, resulting in transcendent moments onstage. Veteran Hanna Schwarz fit the bill of the mother-from-hell perfectly.
Donald Runnicles provided his accustomed first-class leadership for the orchestra, seamlessly interpreting a score that runs from folk tunes to Puccinian romanticism; it's a score that hews to its central theme and powerful emotions, avoiding the extraneous, avoiding excess, succeeding brilliantly in creating consistently intense musical drama.
San Francisco, November 10, 2002 - Arthur Lazere