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Melody Moore (Katya) [Photo by Jacob Lucas]
19 Mar 2017

Káťa Kabanová in its Seattle début

The atmosphere was a bit electric on February 25 for the opening night of Leoš Janàček’s 1921 domestic tragedy, and not entirely in a good way.

Káťa Kabanová in its Seattle début

A review by Roger Downey

Above: Melody Moore (Katya) [Photo by Jacob Lucas]

All other photos by Philip Newton


The immediately preceding production of Seattle Opera’s 2016-17 season had been the much-traveled Traviata from the atelier of Peter Konwitschny, and the show’s rather coarse updating and arbitrary dramaturgy had not gone down at all well with the company’s conservative but sophisticated audience. Was this to be another evening of mannered, second-hand Regietheater? The immense bare black box confronting the house as we entered was not promising: even the supertitle screen looked more like a stage-wide guillotine than a refuge for the eyes of the Czech-impaired among us.


170221_Katya.2_pn_-187.pngNicky Spence (Tichon) and Maya Lahyani (Varvara)

Well, Regietheater it was, but of the engaged, engaging audience-friendly kind. As the music began, the marvelous American dramatic soprano Melody Moore stood center-stage, impaled in a column of searing white light. Then around her, images familiar to most of the audience began to fill the box: the rosy brown basalt cliffs of an Eastern Washingotn river valley; a white picket fence complete with red-flagged mailbox by the gate; townsfolk strolling in high-1940’s Sunday-go-to-meeting gear; finally, a broadspread American flag descending to complete the thoroughly Normal Rockwell picture.

The visuals of Mark Howett and Genevieve Blanchett’s deft production did not remain so Grant-Woody American Gothic (though the tschochke-choked home the heroine shares with her cringing husband and horrible mother-in-law could easily host that master’s Daughters of the American Revolution). Projections of roiling waters, clouds of crows began to invade the scene as the dream of childish bliss Kàt’a recounts to her bobby-soxer sister-in-law fade away. Stark lighting contrasts both isolate and link the performers.

1702021_Katya_pn_1974.pngVictoria Livengood (Kabanicha)

Kàt’a’s dreams are the key to look and dramaturgy of Patrick Nolan’s production. The danger for an updated, Americanized Kàt’a is implausibility: how can the love even of a timid small-town girl and a feckless rich boy be thwarted so thoroughly the era when Rosalind Russell, Ginger Rogers, and Betty Grable are setting the tone for young American girls’ behavior every weekend at the movie palace?

But this Kàt’a isn’t just a dreamer: she’s all dreamer. When life hands her lemons like mom-in-law Kabanicha (Victoria Livengood, a church lady who doesn’t mind a smoke, drink, or cuddle behind closed doors) and husband Tichon (Nicky Spence, a boozy bullpup without a bite) she incorporates them as dream enemies, and finds a dream prince handy in the form of Boris, (Joseph Dennis), lollygagging and at loose ends in the provinces

Ms. Moore is a mature woman and Dennis is a young man, but the mismatch in ages only accents the absurd of their relationship, while their voices, more sumptuous and powerful than those of the second cast’s Corinne Winters and Scott Quinn give them ever greater emotional clout as the drama deepens.

1702021_Katya_pn_2281.pngJoseph Dennis (Boris) and Melody Moore (Katya)

The power of the production is mightily enhanced from the pit. When a show is this well sung and acted throughout, it’s easy to forget the challenge for non-Czech singers in this repertory. I have no idea if a Czech speaker would find their delivery “authentic,” but they convinced me completely, and their attack and confidence can only be the result of the conducting of Oliver von Dohnànyi.

His is one of the proudest names of the last century in Central Europe. I do not know if Von Dohnànyi is related to the great musicians and statesmen whose name he shares, but his artistry is worthy of his name. Seattle Opera and Seattle audiences are lucky to have him.

They are also fortunate in the rest of the cast. The thoughtless young lovers Varvara and Kudrjas are taken in both casts by Maya Lahyani and Joshua Kohl in rather genre-generic musical-comedy second-couple fashion, but both sing very well; Nicky Spence and Stefan Skafarowsky make the most of their tiny roles. look forward to seeing them all in future productions.

Above all, let’s have Janacek Bring back: It’s been more than 25 year since we saw Cunning Little Vixen. Thanks to this fine show and above all to maestro von Dohnanyi, we’re prapared for The Macropolos Affair and From the House of the Dead!

Roger Downey

Cast and production information:

Conductor: Oliver von Dohnanyi. Kàt’a: Melody Moore/Corinne Winters; Boris: Joseph Dennis/Scott Quinn; Kabanicha: Victoria Livengood; Kudrjas: Joshua Kohl; Varvara: Maya Lahyani; Tichon: Nicky Spence; Dikoi: Stefan Skafarowsky; Glasha: Jennifer Cross; Feklusha: Susan Salas; Kuligin: Joseph Lattanzi. Seattle Opera chorus and Orchestra. Director: Patrick Nolan; Production design: Genevieve Blanchett; Lighting and digital effects: Mark Howett.

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