Kátya Kabanová fills you with despair, in a good way

Kátya Kabanová
NZ Opera
ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre, Auckland: September 23
St James Theatre, Wellington: October 7, 10, 12 and 14

One of the benefits of performing classical music in New Zealand is the ability for our national companies to go off-piste: the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra can undertake a cycle of Mahler’s symphonies, Royal New Zealand Ballet isn’t forced to perform Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, and New Zealand Opera can stay away from the so-called ‘Top 10.’

It’s New Zealand Opera general director Stuart Maunder’s dedication to performing the less well-known works that has led to it putting on Leoš Janaček’s Kátya Kabanová (the composer's name is pronounced leh-osh yah-nah-check).

The story, based upon Alexander Ostrovsky’s play The Storm, is about a married woman (Katya, short for Katerina) who falls in love with another man, commits adultery, confesses, then kills herself. Quite a Russian tale.

Janaček also sets his opera in the small town of Kalinov, on the Volga river in 19th century Russia. NZ Opera’s tradition of ‘modernising’ its productions is again applied here, and takes us into 1950s America.

The production being used comes from Seattle Opera, so it can be forgiven that a monumental American flag descends from the rafters and plants itself as the focal point for the first scene of the first act. Costuming choices also run this theme, with the contrasting of Katya’s ‘pretty’, pink, housewife dress against Varvara’s jeans and button-up shirt.

Other than the disconcerting American patriotism, the set is the standout of the opera. We begin by watching Katya wander the stage among a projected cosmos — the light projection is done in such a way you feel the depth of the abyss  — and the scenes wind into each other, powered by players dressed in the overalls of handymen, instead of the trying-too-hard-to-be-discreet-all-black outfits usually unfortunately seen.

Katya Kabanova (Dina Kuznetsova) waves goodbye to a digital projection (photo: David Rowland)

The combination of Genevieve Blanchett’s set design and Mark Howett’s lighting genius is shown twice: Tichon’s departure where you see a digital figure of him walking away from the house at the end of Act One, and the jolting effects of the storm at the beginning of Act Three.

Sing for your life
Janaček lived around the time of two other great Czech composers — Antonín Dvořak and Bedřich Smetana — and like them, was heavily influenced by folk music. We hear these catchy tunes in the love between Kudrjas and Varvara, perhaps over-simplifying the portrayal of easy love in comparison to the predicament Katya finds herself in.

Yet I found the performances by James Benjamin Rodgers (Kudrjas) and Hayley Sugars (Varvara) the most compelling. Their performances didn’t feel as though they needed to over-perform or project; not everything needs to be a melodrama in a tragedy.

As for the rest of the cast, the singing was fine. Dina Kuznetsova, an American-Russian singer who specialises in singing Slavic and Russian roles, embodied Katya in her acting perfectly. There was a sense the cast was still warming up through each scene: Tones became far warmer, rounder and, well, settled by the third act.

The acting overall lifted the whole opera — Conal Coad’s comedic chops deserve a special mention.

Kátya Kabanová’s not going to lift your spirits up at all. Expect despair, lots of it but, hopefully, that will be solely from the narrative.

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