Janácek’s Kat’a Kabanova

A Drama of Passion With a Strong Critical Voice

The lavishly decorated interior of the Theater an der Wien, erected only a few years after Mozart’s death by impresario and librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, is one of the most beautiful opera houses of Vienna. Smaller, though, it is at the same time far more intimate.

Therefore, operas that require large orchestral or vocal forces are a particular challenge for finding the right musical balance. This challenge was successfully met in Leoš Janácek’s (1854 – 1928) Kát’a Kabanová that premiered on Apr. 13.

For those familiar with Janácek’s style, this work – unlike the much more famous Jenufa (1904) – shows the composer at his best. At the age of 67, he had produced an opera based on Russian playwright Alexandr Ostrovsky’s (1823 – 1886) The Storm, a drama full of passion with a strong underlining social criticism.

The idiom of the Czech language is well integrated into the vocal writing, as in most of Janácek’s stage works, as well as rich Czech folk tunes that are an essential part of the opera’s color, in a sound world in places reminiscent of Puccini.

The first glimpse of the stage is already a different world from the golden interior design of Schikaneder’s theater: A dark river channel in the middle towards the audience, while grey side walls close in on the oppressive gloomy scene.

Still the timeless stage design of Kaspar Glarner complements well director Keith Warner’s vision, recasting the idyllic scene of a small town on the Volga River of late 19th century tsarist Russia into a steel bridge, which – with effective lightning and misty effects – creates even more an atmosphere of despair.

The plot is easily told: the young couple, Kát’a, performed by the young German Soprano Melanie Diener, and Tichon, interpreted by American Tenor Raymond Very, live in with his despotic mother Kabanicha, sung by the famous German Soprano Anja Silja (see photo). To escape the love-less marriage, Kát’a begins an affair with Boris, (American Robert Brubaker). But all turns sour, when Kát’a, filled with guilt, confesses her adultery to her mother-in-law in a dramatic thunderstorm, and escaping the shame, takes her own life in the Volga River. Tichon, finally raises up against his mother accusing her of comlicity.

Janácek compressed the five-act play into a three-act musical drama in the best sense, where the final act – set during a thunderstorm – explodes with enormous dramatic energy. There is thunder lightning and mist; the inner world of Kát’a collapses of guilt and disappears in the dark. The steal bridge, around which the drama finds its conclusion after Kát’a’s body was pulled out of the river, the dramatic orchestral finale nevertheless, ends the tyranny of Kabanicha’s world: Left alone on the bridge, it collapses in a spectacular lighting effect.

Musically, the evening brought an experienced cast in a sensual, and at the same timid interpretation of the lead character paired with a vocally powerful, but overdone partner, with force rather than passion – particularly in the romantic scene at the end of Act II, where Boris and Káťa get together for the first time. Silia’s Kabanicha convinced more through her charismatic and physical presence rather than her vocal performance, which felt like a whisper and text declamation rather than singing.

The main musical actor, however, was the Radio Symphonie Orchester Wien, conducted by Kirill Petrenko. The cold and hard sound and clarity was convincingly performed, and matched the overall mood of the opera perfectly, but lacked the warmth of the passion and sensuality.

While the performance drew to its close after less than two hours without an interval, the opera concludes with a dramatic blackout; preceded by eight puls-like beats of the Timpani, a motive with which the evening opened and regualry reoccuring in the work, in the literature the so-called fate motive.

The audience rose to its feet after a moment of silence, expressing its enthsiasm and appreciation, the the lights come back on I find myself still sitting in the nostalgic 18th-centuy Theater an der Wien. But the capitvating sensuality written into the music, usually not associated with the tradition of this opera house refers back to Janácek own life.

In 1917, the composer met Kamila Stösslová in the Moravian Spa Town Luhačovice. Although both were married, they pursued a romantic affair over the years – the composer’s letters are witness, and they prove the importance for the inspiration of Kát’a Kabanová.

I recalled one of the key passages, Janácek writing in October 1921to Stösslová: “When I became acquainted to you in Luhačovice during the war and saw for the first time how a woman can love her husband – I remember those tears of yours – that is the reason why I took up Kát’a Kabanová and composed it.“

While I get up from my seat and making my way out, I realiye that not much was left of the composer’s romantic intention in tonight’s performance. Furthermore, the sensual aspects of this “Russian Madame Bovary“ – as the German and German translator of Janácek’s operas, Max Brod, described Kát’a in 1925 – gave way to powerful social critisism. Undoubtely effective and appreciated tonight. And the Timpani strokes still resonated as I left the theater across Naschmarkt.

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