Barcelona’s Teatre Liceu scores a triumph with a starkly effective “Káťa Kabanová”   

November 27, 2018
By John von Rhein

Patricia Racette and Nikolai Schukoff in Janáček’s “Káťa Kabanová” at Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona. Photo: A. Bofill.

BARCELONA. Operas by Czech composers have enjoyed a rich performance history at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Spain’s most important opera company, along with the Teatro Real in Madrid. Yet the stage works of Leoš Janáček have turned up infrequently in recent seasons, the latest having been Jenůfa in 2004-05 and The Makropoulos Case in 1999-2000. Indeed, the recent production by the American director David Alden of Káťa Kabanová marked the first Liceu staging of Janáček’s 1921 masterpiece since 2001-02.

The prospect of hearing the compelling American singing actress Patricia Racette in the title role made a visit to the handsomely rebuilt, 2,292-seat theater (restored in 1999 after a fire five years earlier) mandatory for this visiting Janáček-ophile.

Káťa Kabanová scored a triumph, gracing a season otherwise dominated by standard Italian and French repertory, including concert versions of Bernstein’s Candide and Handel’s Agrippina. (Liceu will also present the world premiere of L’enigma di Lea, a Catalan opera by Spanish composer Benet Casablancas on Feb. 9.) Racette, other members of the strong cast, and conductor Josep Pons were roundly applauded at the fifth and penultimate performance on November 20.

Káťa Kabanová marked the beginning of an amazing Indian summer of protean creativity for Janáček that yielded the four major operas which, along with the earlier Jenůfa, sealed his international reputation in the decade preceding his death in 1928, at 74. Characters in all four works were inspired, at least in part, by the composer’s passionate, if one-sided, love affair with Kamila Stösslová, a married woman 38 years his junior.

His terse adaptation of Russian writer Alexander Ostrovsky’s tragedy The Storm had as its unhappy heroine Kat’a (or Katya, as her name is usually rendered in English), a gentle, virtuous young Russian woman living in a provincial Russian town on the Volga river. Katya is trapped in a loveless marriage to the weakling bureaucrat Tichon Kabanov, and bullied by his vicious mother, Marfa Ignatěvna Kabanová (aka Kabanicha). An adulterous liaison with a handsome Muscovite, Boris Grigorjevič, provides temporary release from her desperate situation, but it also leads to guilt, shame, confession and catastrophe as the opera moves to its shattering conclusion.

Driving this grim drama is Janáček’s music, closely wedded to the sound and rhythms of the Czech language; the vocal lines are cast in a form of song-speech over terse, continually evolving orchestral textures laden with emotional subtext. The veteran Pons made his fine orchestra a full-fledged co-protagonist – by turns dark, brooding, astringent, luminous and consoling. Rhythms registered with all due bite, while the radiant lyrical atmosphere Pons elicited from his ensemble, the strings in particular, made its effect in the horseshoe-shaped theater’s excellent acoustic.

Alden can be a frustrating director, perversely interventionist with some productions, respectful and restrained with others. The stark, expressionist 2010 staging of Káťa Kabanová he created with his regular design team – Charles Edwards (set), Jon Morrell (costumes) and Adam Silverman (lighting) – for the English National Opera is, fortunately, of the latter artistic persuasion. Every element worked with Janáček’s restless music to tell the story with gritty clarity, drawing the audience ever deeper into the opera’s oppressive interior world. Compressing the three acts into one tightened the musico-dramatic noose all the further.

Alden and his creative team limned the provincial claustrophobia that oppresses and finally destroys Katya by opting for its visual opposite – a wide-open playing area, dominated by a giant, pale-brown plywood wall stretching the diagonal depth and, as it swiveled, the horizontal width of the stage. A door was cut into the wall, and a blue-painted panel at the rear suggested the Volga. The lighting threw immense shadows of the characters on the bare wall. A few chairs, a religious icon, and a huge, collapsible, Soviet-style billboard were the main decorative touches. Paradoxically, Katya’s isolation felt all the more terrible because of the enlarged empty spaces surrounding her.

Racette excels at playing put-upon heroines who are robust enough to fight back, which put her interpretation of the title role somewhat at odds with the “soft nature” Janacek saw in the doomed Katya. But what her characterization lacked in fragility and vulnerability it made up for in vocal strength and dramatic intensity. Patches of squally sound at the top as she applied pressure on her prominent vibrato were a small price to pay for so gripping and committed a performance. Katya’s despair once she had confessed her adultery was vividly drawn, Racette’s  Czech diction was credible, and her physical investment in the role rivaled her musical and histrionic involvement. How many Katyas have you seen who hurl themselves into the raging waters of the Volga with the athletic abandon of a trained dancer?

The Liceu surrounded its leading lady with a worthy international cast.

The full-throated Austrian tenor Nikolai Schukoff excelled as Katya’s ardent lover Boris, who leaves the dishonored girl in the lurch before heading off to exile in Siberia. As the mother-in-law from hell, English mezzo-soprano Rosie Aldridge underscored Kabanicha’s cruel moral rectitude by not pushing monstrosity into caricature. The calmness with which her character thanked the villagers for their kindness following Katya’s suicide by drowning chilled one to the core.

Spanish tenor Francisco Vas aptly conveyed the psychological trauma of Kabanicha’s domineering tyranny over her weakling son, Tikhon. Tenor Antonio Lozano and soprano Michaela Selinger brought sunny counterbalance to the dark drama as the young romantic couple Váňa Kudrjaš and his free-spirited Varvara.

Russian bass Aleksander Teliga bellowed wonderfully as the provincial merchant Dikoj, supplying choice comic relief in his drunken sadomasochistic scene with the more-than-obliging Kabanicha. The smaller roles were capably taken by locally-based house singers.

Supertitles were provided in Spanish, Catalan and English, a service unique to opera houses in this magnificent region of Spain.

The 2018-19 Gran Teatre del Liceu season continues with Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri, which opens on December 1.  

 John von Rhein was the classical music critic of the Chicago Tribune for 40 years, retiring from the newspaper on July 1.

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