Janacek's Kata Kabanova began this year's run at the Met on Friday night with a very new cast including two important and highly successful debuts.
This is Janacek late in his career, writing on a Russian subject by the playwright Ostrovsky. His admiration for Russian culture and literature may also have led him to follow Anton Chekhov's example — Kata moves swiftly with the sense that any extraneous word or note has been rigorously pruned away — it is an opera that speaks directly and powerfully to its audience. Last night's audience — the Met was at least 90% full — reacted with enthusiasm that bordered on delirium when the final curtain rose again for beloved Finnish soprano Karita Mattila's pride-of-place first solo bow.
Ms. Mattila is not perfect. Let's get out of the way the fact that the lower voice is rather dry and not the most interesting register she possesses. Beyond that, her Kata moved from strength to strength as she created a wholly convincing character and sang the role with blazing conviction, beauty of tone and a glorious upper register. Particularly in act 3 her talents as an actress were astonishing — her physicality in expressing Kata's self revulsion, then the poignancy and aching need for some kind of physical contact from the feckless Boris, then the radiant calm with which she sang that birds would fly over her grave and bring their young with them. Then she turned and instead of an actressy leap into the Volga, she simply dropped off the riverbank and let herself be absorbed in the ever-flowing river's history. The woman next to me gasped; when it was all over the crowd went crazy.
Judith Forst provided a scary Kabanicha, ramrod straight, seethingly intolerant, demanding, manipulative, ultimately unbearable and so wonderfully tempting to hate. Along the revival's director Paula Williams and the rock-solid bass Vladimir Ognovenko as Dikoj, Forst has reimagined the bizarre little scene for Kababicha and Dikoj in act 2. Formerly played as a scene where the drunk and slobbering Dikoj disgusts her, she is now visibly aroused and the scene ends with Dikoj on his knees clutching her hips and buttocks with his face buried in her bodice. The curtain quickly falls on what will certainly be a monstrous and morally hypocritical coupling in contrast to the healthier mating of Varvara (the luminous Magda Kozena) and Vana Kudrias (Ramond Very is a superbly detailed and sympathetic performance) or the tragic one of Kata and Boris.
Tenor Jorma Silvasti displayed warm and shimmering tone as Boris and Chris Merritt presented the spineless, trapped but well-meaning Tichon to the life. In his Met debut, conductor Jiri Belohlavek let a taut, propulsive and very beautiful reading of the score, seconded by the Met orchestra in top form. The cast was strongly applauded but it all paled next to the reception for Ms. Mattila. This was a star performance totally at service to the role and the work, sung and acted by a star performer at the height of her art.
Technical Coordinator for Theater Arts
Massachusetts Institute of Technology