The Generation Gap

Janácek’s Kátja Kabanová at the State Opera: Sweltering social mores in NYC’s Little Odessa

The Vienna State Opera had its final première of the season in mid-June: a fine production of Leoš Janácek Kátja Kabanová. The opening pianissimo chords in the lower strings brought me a shiver of anticipation. When they were interrupted by a quiet tolling in the timpani, a mournful English horn, the snippet of a folk melody, I was immediately swept up into the emotions and drama to come.

Janácek’s major operas – Jenufa, Osud and Kátja Kabanová – center on women caught in stifling social circumstances and tragic situations. And also their failed attempts to free themselves. In a sense, the three stories and their female protagonists are variations on a theme.

Kátja’s tragedy revolves around the sweltering social mores of the traditional rural Russian society of the 19th century: arranged marriages, dictatorial mothers-in-law, religious piety and hypocrisy.

In André Engel’s new staging at the State Opera, the Russian tale has moved to “Little Odessa” in New York of the 1950s and its tightly-knit community of immigrants. Here, the older generation is more Russian than Russia; the young adults try to survive their elder’s demands while they are swept up in the newness of the New World.

It is a generational conflict. Despite the foreign trappings, the generation gap is not alien. The Kabanov house is pious and well regarded. It is quickly revealed, however, that it is a hell for the daughter-in-law, Kátja, who is ceaselessly maltreated by her husband’s mother, Kabanicha. The husband Tichon weakly and ineffectually tries to counter his mother’s hostile jabs at his wife, but follows mother’s orders when she sends him away. Although Kabanicha demands that Kátja be faithful, the mother-in-law has her pleasure with the drunken merchant Dikoj. In turn, Dikoj aggressively represses his nephew Boris, who tolerates it only because he is waiting for an inheritance.

And Kátja is in love with Boris. A fatal situation that leads to adultery and then her religion-induced guilt-tormented suicide.

Franz Welser-Möst, at the end of his first season as general music director at the State Opera, has a sovereign and straightforward style of conducting. He has cleaned the Kátja score of hundreds of errors, and brought a fresh Janácek sound. The orchestra was outstanding.

A cycle of Janácek operas is planned: This Kátja production is the first of the series. As Welser-Möst explains, “In addition to our five famous opera gods – Mozart, Verdi, Strauss, Wagner and Puccini – Janácek is the sixth.” And adds, “For me, Janácek, together with Alban Berg, is the most important opera composer of the 20th century.”

While I would also include Benjamin Britten, it is clear that giving the Janácek operas a fixed place in the Vienna repertoire is the right thing to do. Again, this is explained by Welser-Möst: “As they say, every Austrian has a Czech grandmother…. The intuitive understanding [of his music] is incredibly high.”

The scenes in Little Odessa are unmistakably inspired by the American realist paintings of Edward Hopper, especially the sunlit bedroom of Hopper’s Morning Sun. There was also a sparse and bleak Americana feel to the hazy view across the water of Manhattan’s skyline, the rooftop of the love tryst (Hopper’s El Palacio?), and the abandoned building where all the protagonists take shelter during a thunderstorm.

In contrast was the surreal Magrittesque final scene (solitary streetlamp, blind man, black balloons, coffin), which unfortunately seemed a bit lacking in motivation. Janácek music does not paint a dramatic suicide. Kátja rather sings of the flowers that will adorn her grave: crimson red, light blue and golden yellow.

In May, Jenufa was still sung in German. Now, for the first time in Vienna, Kátja was performed in the original Czech. For those in the know, this makes a difference. Every language has its own rhythm, the syllables have their own accent and weight. And music composed to support a particular language follows these nuances. Singers are happy singing Janácek in Czech.

For the listener relying on the discrete little screens in front of each seat at the State Opera, with the text running past in German or English, it perhaps doesn’t matter much. But nonetheless, there was a smooth naturalness that the Max Brod translation just does not permit.

Deborah Polaski as Kabanicha was particularly formidable, in any way you might imagine: a furious mother-in-law with a fabulous voice. Frightening down to the final kick of her daughter-in-law’s corpse.

Her son Tichon (Marian Talaba) was suitably flaccid: never managing to please the mother, nor satisfy his wife. Janice Watson’s Kátja, while beautifully sung, did not break my heart: maybe I couldn’t relate to her religious fervour or sudden shifts of mood. Wolfgang Bankl as Dikoj was superb: a truly tyrannical two-faced uncle.  And Klaus Florian Vogt, the nephew and lover Boris, managed to organize his love life and uncle with aplomb, never letting anything get to him very much.

It was a promising evening: More Janáček at the State Opera is certainly something to look forward to. There are Kátja performances again in November; the next Janáček première, Aus einem Totenhaus, will be in December.

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