"Katya Kabanova" Review - Lyric Opera of Chicago's Exciting New Production

Tichon(Jason Collins), Varvara(Liora Grodnikaite), Kabanicha (Judith Forst),Katya(Karita Mattila)

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Leoš Janáček's Katya Kabanova interested us for different reasons.  Fela’s familiarity with the Czech language, culture and music, that of Dvořák and Smetana drew her to the performance, while it was Janáček's symphonic music, (not knowing of his nine operas), that intrigued Barbara.  How pleased we were to have this opportunity.  We found the opera to be a powerful experience, rewarding and enlightening. It is Interesting  that this current Jonathan Miller Original Production opened at Lyric Opera on the same date, November 22 (2009) as the Janáček premiere in Brno, November 22, 1921, where it was a triumph.

Katya Kabanova takes place in about 1860 in Russia in the small town of Kalinov on the banks of the Volga. It is an earthy drama of sexual and social repression that unfolds as Karita Mattila reprises one of her greatest roles.

Before Tichon leaves

Wanting to learn more about the opera, we attended the free pre-opera lecture. This was valuable because it heightened our awareness of specific musical themes in the opera and  Roger Pines, Dramaturg, Lyric Opera, also offered interesting insights and observations. He dedicated his Katya Kabanova pre-opera lectures to one of the most perceptive and admired sopranos of the postwar era, Elisabeth Söderström, who died at age 82 only a few days before the opening. With a career that spanned more than 50 years, Söderström was the most celebrated interpreter of Janáček heroines.

Katya(Karita Mattila) tells Varvara(Liora Grodnikaite) of her wish to fly

Pines pointed out that the dialogue is realistic and conversational and noted that dysfunctional families are seen continually in operas.  We learned that after composing six operas,  Janáček' s last three brought him attention from a broad audience. At age 62, he appeared to be re-energized as the result of his having fallen in love with Kamila Stösslová, who was 38 years his junior, (married and in love with her husband) a situation that propelled the writing of three of his finest operas: Katya Kabanová, The Cunning Little Vixen and The Makropulos Affair. Janáček, we learned, liked Russia and looked there for inspiration.

Katya(Karita Mattila)shares thoughts of her childhood

The “ Katya theme” that is beautifully lyrical was introduced, in contrast to the foreboding  themes, making it easier to recognize in the opera itself.   Kamilla was Janáček's muse, we were told, but, when it was complete, he was captivated by
Katya.  Written in Czech, it was not until its 1951 production in London that it gained worldwide attention.

Janáček developed a system of speech-melody (making his melodies sound like the rhythm of his language) that influenced all of his operas and was easily recognized in Katya, when the orchestra continued the earlier scene’s “conversation” with the curtain down for a scene change.

Kabanicha (Judith Forst), a horrible mother-in-law

Fela observed, “the story is based on a play by the Russian playwright, Aleksandr  Ostrovsky.  The drama’s title is Groza, which is being translated as “The Storm”.  My translation would have been, “the threat”. The familiarity with the era, the place and its people’s culture is likely unfamiliar to viewers, but the music and the drama of people’s lives is easily understood, and the music is universal.  Janáček's music is so expressive; so lyric and longing at times, and haunting at other times, that it reaches one's soul.  I loved Karita Mattila’s voice, which was clear and beautiful.  Her acting conveyed meaning without needing words.”

In a conversation with Bob during intermission, he shared, “I can’t believe that it has been more than 20 years since I first saw Katya. (The first Lyric Opera production was November 28, 1986.) I loved the music and thought the singing fabulous.”  As we talked, the conversation revolved around operas in unusual languages that haven’t yet been “found,” like Polish, and with Lyric's broad reach, one can anticipate a future with new surprises in the Lyric Opera repertoire.

Varvara(Liora Grodnikaite)and Katya (Karita Mattila)

Janáček was from a large, poor Moravian family and his grandfather and father were musicians and teachers.  When he was eleven he was sent to Brno.  He became friends with Dvořák, married his piano pupil, Zdenka Schulzová before she was sixteen and later collected folksongs he incorporated into his works.

Though Janáček grew up in the middle of the Romantic period, most of his best music was written in 1920s, by which time musical styles had changed.  He never wrote music which sounded as modern as that of Stravinsky or Schoenberg, but his music is Romantic, combined with Moravian folksong.   From “program notes,” Gavin Plumley points out that " Katya Kabanova….along with Jenufa, (has) become the most widely performed of the composer’s works.  Through the aching lyricism of his style, it joins the ranks of Eugene Onegin and Madama Butterfly as one of the most tender yet brutal romances in the operatic repertoire.”

Varvara (Liora Grodnikaite) enjoys time with Kudrjas(Garrett Sorenson)

Karita Mattila's portrayal of Katya was amazing, her voice beautiful and consistant with the drama that was riveting.  The orchestra’s “conversations” moved the action forward.  The sets were minimalist and appropriate to the story and historic time and place.  During the storm scene, the set changed markedly to a different look, heightening the drama. The stage was suddenly reminiscent of Gustave Caillebotte’s painting of Paris Street: Rainy Day.  This scene with thunder and lightning and the sense of impending doom was high drama.  Was Katya the “eye” of the storm, or the victim of the storm?  Come and find out more, especially why the audience rose enthusiastically for a standing ovation.

Katya(Karita Mattila) pulled from the Volga, dead

Awaiting you are the skills of many in addition to Karita Mattila (Katya.)  There are: Judith Forst (Kabanicha); Brandon Jovanovich (Boris); Liora Grodnikaite (Varvara); Garrett Sorenson (Kudrjas); Andrew Shore (Dikoj); Jason Collins (Tichon); Markus Stenz, conductor; Jonathan Miller, Original Production; Paula Williams, Stage Director; Robert Israel, Designer; Duane Schuler, Lighting Designer; Donald Nally, Chorus Master.

In Czech with projected English titles.  Made possible by An Anonymous Donor, Julie and Roger Baskes, and Margot and Josef Lakonishok.

Lyric Opera of Chicago
20 North Wacker Drive
Chicago, IL 60606

Photos: Dan Rest

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