Soprano Alvarez, BLO ready to bring Boston its first “Kátya”

March 10, 2015 at 4:48 pm

By George Grella

Elaine Alvarez sings the title role in Janáček’s “Kátya Kabanová,” which opens Friday at Boston Lyric Opera.

“Janáček is special,” says conductor David Angus. “Kátya Kabanová doesn’t get done that much for some amazing reason, because for me it’s just about the best opera ever written, it’s right up there with all the other greats. It’s powerful and emotional, just like Puccini. It’s Puccini on steroids.”

Angus will be conducting when Boston Lyric Opera’s first production of Leoš Janáček’s intense, erotic and tragic opera opens Friday night. The production will also be the first fully staged performance of the opera ever presented in the city of Boston.

Kátya Kabanová is the story of a young woman, barely more than a girl. She lives in a small, suffocating town, where she is married to Tichon and suffers from the domineering cruelty of her mother-in-law. When Tichon is away, Kátya has an intense affair with Boris, a young man with whom she falls in love, but when Tichon returns, the consequences are savage.

Janáček was 67 when he composed the opera, the sixth of nine overall, and arguably the greatest of his substantial pieces for the stage. His music is instantly identifiable for its color, lyricism and intensity, and Janáček’s operatic music is uniquely compelling. He was one of the first composers to set prose librettos, rather than verse, and his orchestral rhythms and vocal lines are closely related to not only the general cadences and patterns of the Czech language, but his own speech, which was know for its staccato phrases. While he was not the most technically cultivated composer, his music gives the impression of having an unmediated connection to what is in his heart and his imagination.

In 1921, when Janáček finished the opera, what was in his heart and imagination was his infatuation with Kamila Stösslová, a married woman 38 years his younger. This was not his first such love, but was his most passionate and long lasting, carrying him to the end of his life. It was also one-sided, obsessive, and lived entirely in his imagination, except for the 700-some letters he wrote to Kamila. But it clearly inspired the incredible longing and bittersweet beauty of Kátya, along with his extraordinary song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared and another of his greatest operas, The Cunning Little Vixen.

While the story in the opera is adapted from a play by Russian writer Aleksander Ostrovsky, and has conscious parallels with Madama Butterfly, the earthy, life-size immediacy of what happens on stage and in the music has deep roots in what Janáček idealized in Kamila, with the sharp and unsettling tragedy that he imagined for Kátya—the opera is not just what happens to Kátya, but what Janáček imagines might happen if his own dreams would come to fruition. The psychological realism and humanity flows, without artifice, from the music.

Soprano Elaine Alvarez will sing Kátya, in her role debut (she has sung Janacek before, playing the servant girl Barena in Jenůfa at Glimmerglass Opera in 2006). “You hear that restlessness in the score” she says, speaking about Janáček’s yearning for Kamila. “I do think it’s a fantasy, this is how he sees her in his mind, not necessarily who she really was, but who she was in Janáček’s mind.

Alvarez will be joined on stage by tenor Alan Schneider, who plays Kátya’s husband Tichon, tenor Raymond Very (in his BLO debut) as Boris, and soprano Elizabeth Byrne—also debuting with BLO—as Tichon’s mother Kabanischa.

It is her mother-in-law, Kabanischa, along with the two men in her life who stifle Kátya’s life and control her will and destiny. “I would have thought Janáček would have written himself into the opera, but I don’t want to think that he’s any of these men!” says Alvarez.

Of Kátya, she says, “I generally play characters that have a softer story to tell, or die of illness—she’s living in a very oppressive environment, and the story that comes out of her is tremendous. Very, very dramatic. I think that’s the most challenging thing about the role.”

Alvarez sees the character as “this incredibly sensitive human being. I think she has a tendency to retreat into her imagination and have a very vivid fantasy life in her own mind. She feels everything in a hyper-realized way, everything hits her in an emotional place first.

“She has no protection, and she’s looking to Tichon to protect her, and he can’t. She continues to retreat further and further into her fantasy life, and then gets drawn into an affair with Boris, which continues to feed her fantasy life. In this way, I see Janáček placing himself in her.”

Leoš Janáček

Through the score, the drama is intensely compacted. At a total duration of about 90 minutes, the production will run without an intermission. “Janáček finished the story in about the time Wagner gets through a prelude,” Angus points out. “Within five minutes of the curtain going up, you know who everyone is and what all their relationships are. It’s such efficient writing. Then suddenly it blossoms into this bittersweet quality. It’s so concentrated and powerful. People will be shocked and drained by it, but also exhilarated, because it’s so powerful.”

Kátya discovers her love for Boris in a duet that goes by so quickly that it might be unnoticed, were it not for the powerful feelings the music expresses. Janáček, lovestruck as he was with Kamila, lays bare his experience through Kátya. “There are moments in Kátya when Janáček is fully unleashed,” Alvarez says, “where you hear a human being fighting to be free, and you feel these huge moments of freedom, of the soul personified in sound.”

Angus has specific ideas about the score: “Everybody wants to make music beautifully, but this has far more muscle and bite. The brass snarling away, and hitting big accents … It says accent, you really hit the accent. Everything is hard-edged and brittle. It’s lush already, and you have to play very energetically. You don’t have to put sugar on it.

“He brings in all these discords, the most ravishing discords. He always has these strange orchestral colors, but also just the right discord that is beautiful and pulls straight at the heartstrings, it has that pang of longing. It’s never unpleasant, it’s always deeply emotional.”

Putting all this color, emotion and intensity on stage is director Tim Albery, working with costume designer Hildegard Bechtler and lighting designer Peter Mumford. Their production debuted with Opera North in 2007, where it earned high critical praise. This Boston version will be sung in English, using the publisher Universal’s official translation. Still, the BLO crew is tinkering with the language.

“In English, it’s easier to pronounce, to portray the story, to memorize,” says Alvarez, “but it creates a different challenge, to enunciate and communicate that text clearly.” Through the rehearsal, director, conductor and singers are editing bits of the translation to not only make it as singable as possible, but also to make it more idiomatic.

Angus also wants the language to be as intelligible as possible, he wants the audience’s attention riveted on the stage, not wandering to the supertitles.

“The audience will be knocked out theatrically,” he says. Angus adds, “but they will also go away thinking it’s the most beautiful opera ever written.”

Kátya Kabanová opens 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Shubert Theatre and runs through March 22. blo.org; 617-542-6772.

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