Alvarez magnificent in BLO’s mixed premiere of Janacek’s “Katya”

March 14, 2015 at 10:46 am

By Angelo Mao

Elaine Alvarez stars in the title role of Janacek’s “Katya Kabanova” at Boston Lyric Opera.

Boston Lyric Opera”s belated local premiere of Janacek’s Katya Kabanova has much to recommend it. BLO’s production, which opened Friday night at the Shubert Theatre, was marked by committed soloists and a consistent, spare and stark vision of Janacek’s opera, which was born from his intense and unrequited feelings for Kamila Stosslova, the love of his life.

Yet the overall impact left one somewhat unsatisfied, lacking much of the warmth and lushness that drove Janacek to write the opera in the first place.

The setting is a village on the banks of the Volga. Katya, married to Tichon, is tormented by her domineering mother-in-law, whose jealous intervention has soured the marriage. When Tichon leaves for a trip, Katya, with the help of her sister-in-law Varvara, begins an affair with Boris. Her ensuing guilt precipitates her confession and drives her to commit suicide in the Volga.

Hildegard Bechtler’s scenic design was spare and somber with a stark beauty. The design was especially effective in the scene of the lovers’ meeting, with a slanted light created gnarled shadows on a garden wall.

What the production needed was more lushness and shade. Take the first few lines, in which two minor characters remark on the beauty of the Volga. It’s a throwaway opener, but the powerful Volga underpins the inexorable passion and equally inexorable social mores that drive the story. There was no suggestion of the Volga on stage, just two walls, criss-crossing emptiness, and the opportunity to foreshadow the tale’s tragic climax was lost.

The opera’s throbbing heart is Katya. She is a specifically Slavic creation, characterized by a noble simplicity, wildness of feeling combined with great sensitivity, and a deep religious passion. For much of the first act, Elaine Alvarez was a little stiff, and her soprano sounded pinched above the stave. The voice eased as the performance unfolded, and the fitful woodenness seemed to make dramatic sense: this was a woman who was so simple and so full of passion she could not quite figure out how to act. By the end, Alvarez had attained a level of magnificence, and was singing with breathless, full-throated abandon. Janacek’s masterful and haunting portrayal of madness was especially well-executed in her hands.

Alan Schneider was quite good as the henpecked (by his mother) Tichon. When he claims to love Katya despite his own cruel treatment of her, it seemed believable. In his portrayal, his unwillingness to disentangle the conflicting demands of his wife and mother catalyzes Katya’s adultery. Boris, her love interest, is an auxiliary role, and Raymond Very does not do much with it, though his love is tender and believable, conveyed with a seamless tenor.

Elizabeth Byrne was Katya’s villainous mother-in-law, Kabanicha, which is the sort of role that, if overplayed, can overpower every scene in which it appears. Byrne’s Kabanicha fell on the understated side, though her portrayal seemed at times more like a tyrannical English governess than domineering Russian matriarch. Her pellucid soprano contrasted well with Alvarez’s warmth. (Subtlety was clearly not the aim of director Tim Albery: the hinted love affair between the hypocritically pious Kabanicha and the miserly Dikoy is here acted out with clinical flagrancy.)

Sandra Piques Eddy’s Varvara was a standout—charming, pretty, with an ample mezzo and a marvelous fluency. Although Varvara’s role in engineering Katya and Boris’s affair speaks to her vast underestimation of the ramifications, in Eddy’s portrayal it is not stupidity but compassion for Katya that propels the opera into tragedy.

As Varvara’s paramour, Omar Najmi was a fine Vanya Kudrjasch, a man whose rational calm was a good foil to the provincial religiosity of the villagers. A grizzled James Demler as Dikoy was more convincing in his submission at Kabanicha’s feet than railing at his nephew Boris.

In the pit, David Angus could have handled Janacek’s score with more suppleness and feeling: Janacek’s crucial motif of arpeggiated strings sped along without enough investment. Angues highlighted the folk music elements nicely, oases of loveliness in an otherwise rather literal reading of the score.

Janacek’s Katya Kabanova will be repeated Sunday, March 18, 20, and 22 at the Shubert Theatre. blo.org

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