Patrick Nolan

“Katya Kabanova” review: Tragic thrills

Set in a world that might be pre-Bolshevik Russia or Cold War America, Seattle Opera’s first production of a rarely staged Leos Janacek opera might even draw tears from Puccini fans

by ANGELA ALLEN

Unoccupied seats are often the price an opera company pays when it tries something new and off the oft-beaten path of French and Italian opera. There were plenty of empty rows opening night, February 25, at the Seattle Opera, but perhaps by the end of the Katya Kabanova run, seats will fill up in McCaw Hall. The opera continues March 8, 10 and 11.

Most big American opera companies endlessly repeat the same old top ten greatest hits, so with this unusual choice, new-ish Seattle Opera general director Aidan Lang (he’s been in Seattle for almost three years replacing longtime emperor Speight Jenkins) shows his guts, his imagination, his unconventional opera savvy, and his faith in Seattle audiences. And he delivers a tear-jerking tragedy that might even encourage Puccini fans to grab some of those available seats.

Melody Moore (Katya) in Seattle Opera’s ‘Katya Kabanova.’ Photo: Jacob Lucas.

Katya, never before staged in Seattle, is one of Leos Janacek’s (1854-1928) later tragic operas. It debuted in 1921 in Brno in the present-day Czech Republic, and this SO version is wholly new. You might have heard The Cunning Little Vixen; bets are that opera begins and ends your Janacek repertoire.

The Czech composer, born in Moravia, was a contemporary of Giacomo Puccini, but his musical influence is much less powerful than the Italian’s. Katya lacks the familiarity and unreserved melodiousness of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly or of SO’s previous production, Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviatathree tragedies that center on trapped young women. Janacek’s work didn’t make it across the Atlantic until fairly recently, and Europe, even the Czech Republic and former Czechoslovakia, had been reluctant to embrace him until 1950 or so, Lang said in his recent SO podcast about the opera.

Fortunately, SO does a creative job of making the piece come alive for today’s audiences.

The Seattle production is performed in Czech, admittedly the first time I’ve heard an opera sung in that language, a far cry from fluid, easily articulated Italian. Native Czech speaker Oliver von Dohnanyi, a Slovak maestro at Seattle Opera for the first time, conducted, and it was his pulse that captured the rhythm of the spoken language in the music. There are no repeated lines. The sung text sounds both conversational and theatrical, and so despite the unfamiliar music, interspersed with folk tunes, we are drawn into the story immediately.

Katya did not seem overwhelmingly foreign to me, though I am an unabashed Puccini fan. Certainly, it was different from Italian tragedies, but we can digest and appreciate more than we think, especially when the story tells a universal, timeless tragedy.

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