JANACEK
Kata Kabanova
C. Mackerras, dir.
Director: J. Miller

Vána: P.C. Clarke
Glaša: C. Cook
Dikoj: S. Koptchak
Boris: P. Straka
Fekduša: D. Elias
Kabanicha: E. Randová
Tichon: M. Baker
Kata: C. Malfitano
Varvara: K. Karnéus
Kuligin: M. Kwiecien

Broadcast

Leoš Janácek based this opera-one ofmany Russian-inspired works-on Aleksandr Ostrovsky's play The Storm, first produced in1859. Set in a small town on the Volga, the story deals with a young married woman whosequest for freedom from a conventional husband and his overbearing mother leads her to afateful tryst with a lover and ultimately suicide. Kát'a longs to escape her restrictedlife with affectionate but ineffectual husband Tichon and mother-in-law Kabanicha. While Tichon is away on a business trip, the family ward Varvara invites Kát'a to accompany herto the garden by night to meet her admirer, the earnest Boris son of merchant Dikoj, whileVarvara reunites with her guitar-strumming Vána. Afterward Kát'a's religious valuestorment her so that she is driven to make a public confession of her sin before Tichon,Kabanicha and the townspeople who have taken refuge from a sudden thunderstorm. Seeing noway out of her situation, she jumps into the Volga to drown. Kabanicha's relief is as feltas the others' shock.

Listeners may well experience thefrustration of wanting to hear the captivating orchestral part minus the singers. Janácekprovides a feast of rhythms with tantalizing snippets of melody cast about, but the onlyextended segment without voices is the prelude to the second part, Act III of the opera aspresented at the Met. The text however is inseparable from the music. Being able to followthe libretto either at home or in the theater via surtitles makes a substantial differencein appreciating the wedding of voice and music that the composer achieves, said to besomething akin to what Bellini did with the Italian language. What separates Janácekfrom, for example, his Italian contemporaries writing just after World War I is hisrejection of the comfortable, whether it be harmonies and harmonic progressions orsingable melodies. Even though his orchestrations are frequently lush, the effect isentirely modern, as though he listened more to Stravinsky than to Smetana.

Greeted like a breath of fresh air in1991, this was one of the first appealing modernist productions seen at the Met. Sincemany more opera productions like it have been seen in the meantime, the originality isless important now than the fact it counterbalances the numerous overdone Zefirelli-typecreations favored by Met patrons. Jonathan Miller directs this as a turn-of-centuryrealistic drama, while keeping the singers' movements in check. In line with Janácek'spantheistic philosophy, natural effects are emphasized. The Act III rainstorm featuresreal water coming down, to the probable delight of the realistically-oriented Metaudience. Lightning is likewise prominent in that scene. Robert Israel places clapboardhouse and church models of various sizes on a virtually bare stage under Gil Wechsler'sequally plain lighting. The problem with this approach is that the proportions of the Metstage and auditorium dwarf these miniatures, giving an effect that is quaint but notalways convincing. Miller's staging frequently transgresses what should be read asinteriors when the singers step down from the raised floors onto the full stage forsignificant actions. Mr. Israel's choices for costume colors range from white to black toshades of brown. Only Vána's (possibly inappropriately) red-trimmed suit manages to standout. Kát'a herself is in a long-sleeved white floor-length dress with a pleated bodice.Her high collar is closed with a cameo.

Almost single-handedly, conductor Charles Mackerras brought Janácek to the fore in English-speaking countries. He is one of themost versatile conductors on the international scene today, but at the Met heunfortunately has never been offered any of the core repertory "conductor's"operas so his approach could be compared first-hand to that of others. (This listener remembers his exquisitely moving Lohengrin in San Francisco, an assignment that isoff-limits to him and many others at the Met.) Of late Catherine Malfitano's voice hasbecome increasingly fuzzy-sounding to the extent that her potentially effectivecharacterizations suffer. Noted for her all-night Tosca broadcast live from Rome and anude Salome in Salzburg, Ms. Malfitano has embraced a wide repertory including another Janácek role broadcast last season, Elena Makropulos. Katarina Karnéus should be quitegood in her Met debut as Kát'a's step-sister Varvara. The two women's beaus (Peter Strakaas Boris and Paul Charles Clarke as Vána) are taken by high tenors, possibly to emphasizetheir lack of dependability over the long haul. Mr. Clarke might well win more hearts overthe radio than Mr. Straka, and Mark Baker's Tichon will probably take third place in thisunlikely three tenors contest. At this point Eva Randová (Kabanicha) might be moreeffective in the house than over the radio. Sergei Koptchak will be heard as the oldmerchant Dikoj-a character role that can be a scene stealer given the right circumstances.As Kát'a in the 1991 edition, Gabriela Benacková lacked impact-as she often did-but atleast one felt that she was offering a native Czech feel to the role. Leonie Rysanek gaveyet another unforgettable performance as Kát'a's domineering mother-in-law Kabanicha,whether imperiously messing up poor Kát'a's game of solitaire in Act II or delivering herformal thanks to the villagers who fished Kát'a's corpse out of the Volga at the end.

David Lipfert

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