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Big River

November 23, 2009

Karita Mattila and cast in Katya Kabanova
Photo: Dan Rest/LOC 2009

After a quick 36 hours in New York it was onward to Chicago for the other half of my Janacek opera weekend. The Lyric Opera of Chicago opened up a production of Katya Kabanova, which I saw on Sunday (at their invitation). And while it may not be a first for the company, cast members, or this particular production like the Met’s From the House of the Dead, it’s pretty fantastic on its own terms. The primary reason for this is the phenomenal Karita Mattila who appears in the title role. Mattila has become the most significant performer of Janacek’s operas since Elisabeth Söderström, and seeing her should be a high priority. Given Söderström's recent passing, it makes this performance even more poignant considering that it's pretty clear that due to her work with Mackerras on a number of seminal recordings, Janacek's operas have pretty much arrived at the international repertory by now. Mattila is well suited to the frustrated Katya, trapped in a claustrophobic family home and pushed beyond the brink in the wake of her affair with the young and handsome Boris. Mattila is a performer who never leaves a question in anyone’s mind about the level of her immersion in a role. The clarity and intensity of her voice throughout this opera is just one example of what great singing is all about.

To make matters even better, Mattila is paired with the young and alluring Brandon Jovanovich. As Boris, he cuts a physically and vocally exciting figure of the young man Katya has fallen in love with. The rest of the cast is convincing. Judith Forst plays the evil step-mother Kabanicha. It’s a tough role that easily becomes cartoonish, which she was not entirely successful at avoiding here. Of course, Jonathan Miller’s rather plain-jane 1991 production imported from the Metropolitan Opera doesn’t leave the cast many places to turn on the large , empty stage. Why they dry-docked an opera soaking in the waters of the Volga with little more than a slit at the rear of the stage in Act III is somewhat bewildering. Katya Kabanova contains frequent musical and spoken allusions to the power of the river but Miller's staging would have worked equally well as Oklahoma!. On the plus side, Miller's approach does invite you to see Kabanicha, who constantly berates Katya for her shortcomings as a wife, and the younger Varvara, who encourages Katya's affair with Boris, as two sides of Katya's own personality. It's not some metaphorical overlay, but the troika of these women are tightly bound in this most straight-forward of approaches.

The orchestra was led by Markus Stenz, the music director of the Cologne Opera, and no stranger to Janacek. It was a richly textured and lively performance from the orchestra. So even if you're not going to be in New York over the next couple of weeks, there is a great Janacek opera to be seen right here in Chicago, so don't let it pass you by. Katya Kabanova runs through December 12th.


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