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OPERA REVIEW : Friedrich Stages Probing ‘Kat’a’

Times Music Critic

“Kat’a Kaban,” which was introduced to Los Angeles Saturday night by the Music Center Opera, may be Leos Janacek’s masterpiece.

Inspired in 1921 by Alexander Ostrovsky’s realist play “The Storm,” it is a sensitive study of the conflict between a free spirit and a hostile society. Dark and brutal in tone yet ultimately tender and introspective in accent, it compresses universal tragedy into a stark and poetic little music drama.

“Kat’a Kabanova” may alienate those who want to think of opera in terms of grandiose gestures. There are no sweeping melodies here, no indulgent love duets, no expansive monologues, no whomping finales. Janacek is too subtle, too intelligent, too sparing for any of that.

He paints with small, careful strokes. The lyrical inspirations surge in a network of ever-changing fragmentary impulses. The vocal lines trace the contours and inflections of the Czechoslovakian text. The orchestra exposes the characters’ emotions with urgent flexibility.

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Much of the drama takes place in the pit. It is here that the composer moves, with startling speed, from sensual mood setting to crude evocation of the folk idiom to psychologically justified transformations of basic motives to lush crescendos that tend to stop just short of climactic fulfillment.

This is an opera predicated on tensions, theatrical as well as musical. It is an opera for audiences willing to do more than sit back, relax and enjoy a pretty ride.

The Music Center has turned to the Paris Opera for a celebrated production staged by Gotz Friedrich and designed by Hans Schavernoch. It is a model of enlightened, modern musical theater.

One could argue that its impact would be enhanced even further by a good English translation. There is something intrinsically silly, and circuitous, about non-Czechs dutifully singing a transliteration of the original Czech libretto for an American audience while minimalist supertitles telegraph the translations of selected lines on a screen high above the proscenium.

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One also might plead for the increasingly common practice of playing the opera without intermission. “Kat’a Kabanova” lasts only an hour and 50 minutes, and much of its cumulative passion is lost during a pause that fails to refresh.

Still, one can only admire the dedication and unity of purpose that illuminates every scene, every stance and every gesture. Friedrich respects the odd fusion of realism and stylization that marks the score, and stresses comparable contradictions in his performance concept. His protagonists move with natural pathos--there is no room here for operatic cliche--but they act out their personal agonies in a world of rigid symbols and stern abstractions.

Schavernoch, who had created the bizarre visual milieu for Harry Kupfer’s “Ring” in Bayreuth last summer, reduces the village of Kalinov, the rustic homes and the banks of the river to a neat yet ingenious series of platforms, props and curtains. The physical milieu, most evocatively lit by Marie Barrett, is threatened by the oppressive presence of a gigantic, earthy slab that sometimes frames the drama, sometimes floats above it and sometimes actually supports the action.

Basically, “Kat’a Kabanova " is the story of two tortured women. The innocent heroine, trapped between her own erotic nature and her moral idealism, is victimized by her weak-willed husband, betrayed by her insensitive lover, mocked by her neighbors, misunderstood by her friends. She finds solace in love and nature--in birds and flowers and, most important, in the soothing waters of the Volga. Kat’a’s fatal antagonist is her mother-in-law, Marfa Kabanova, publicly a stern pillar of the community but privately something of free spirit herself.

The two women are splendidly cast here. Karan Armstrong is always honest and touching as Kat’a. Leonie Rysanek cares enough to make Marfa Kabanova something more complex and more compelling than the witch in “Hansel und Gretel.”

Armstrong manages to exude warmth, vulnerability and goodness without resorting to easy effects. She builds her characterization on restraint, stressing thoughtful detail and gentle pain at the outset. This makes her ultimate outbursts of ecstasy, despair and heroic sacrifice all the more affecting. Although one can imagine more silvery, more sensuous voices in the part (Elisabeth Soderstrom, Anja Silja and Lorna Haywood set standards in San Francisco), Armstrong sings with fervor, luminous tone and, in the finale, tragic impact.

Rysanek is properly tough and forbidding when she needs to be, and she sings with her long-accustomed, full-throated vibrancy. Unlike some predecessors in the role, however, she never stoops to caricature. She makes the widow a handsome woman eminently capable of a lapse such as a dalliance with a drunken merchant. Most revealing, she permits a flash of guilty self-recognition to ruffle her nasty composure at the moment of Kat’a’s suicide.

The singing actors in the supporting cast are worthy of the principals. Warren Ellsworth, Seattle’s erstwhile Siegmund and London’s Parsifal, looks like a boy and sounds like a man as Kat’a’s lover. William Cochran, Hamburg’s Siegfried, makes much of her mother-hen-pecked husband. Louis Lebherz is properly crusty as the merchant. Jonathan Mack and Kathryn Cowdrick bring character and natural charm to the flirtatious encounters of Kat’a’s young friends.

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Jiri Kout, who had led a listless “Rosenkavalier” in Munich in July, conducted the music of his countryman with disarming sweep and pervasive sympathy. The expanded Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra responded with suave bravura.

The Music Center Opera has done it again.


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