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A new ‘Kat’a’ is born: Mattila shows her power

Times Staff Writer

With the widely praised American premiere of Messiaen’s “Saint Francois d’Assise” selling out at San Francisco Opera last month, the company’s new general director, Pamela Rosenberg, proved that there is an audience for challenging opera. But fears persist that this unapologetically intellectual impresario will alienate the city’s traditional opera supporters, who think of the War Memorial Opera House as a venue for star singers and a playground for high society rather than a home for vital theater. And she will need to keep pulling in audiences to deal with a recently announced $7.7-million deficit.

Rosenberg’s second new production, Janacek’s “Kat’a Kabanova,” which opened Sunday afternoon, falls into her long-range plans to investigate opera about women who are “laws unto themselves”; it is also part of a Janacek cycle. She has brought in a fashionable German production team -- director Johannes Schaaf, set designer Erich Wonder and costume designer Falko Herold -- to give the drama’s sexuality a postmodern edge.

Still, San Francisco’s avid canary fanciers need not worry. What really sets apart this “Kat’a” is singing. Assuming the title role for the first time, Karita Mattila turns in a performance of such shattering dramatic power and stunning vocal assurance that it seems certain Kat’a will become associated with her forevermore.

This superb Finnish soprano has been slowly climbing the operatic star ladder, most notably in her outstanding portrayal of Leonora in the Metropolitan Opera’s recent production of “Fidelio.” But with “Kat’a,” she has really arrived.

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Kat’a is most certainly a woman who stands outside the repressive society of 19th century Russia, where the opera takes place, although it is staged here on a set that looks more like something out of modern Ingmar Berman film. Oppressed by her icy cruel mother-in-law, Kabanicha, and stifled by her weak husband, Tichon, she simply explodes sexually. Religious ecstasy turns into erotic extramarital release, and it consumes her. She is not so much a law unto herself as the internal battlefield between the laws of nature and her society.

The temptation is to treat Kat’a as a sensitive, sensual hysteric driven to distraction. Janacek’s music, with its melodic and rhythmic fragments that seem as agile as thought and emotion themselves, inspire a fractured look at consciousness. Mattila, however, presents Kat’a as never out of control. As she battles for Tichon’s affections, it is she, not the vicious mother-in-law, who is in control.

At the end of the opera when Mattila, with searing authority, likens the release of singing birds to her own sexual release, it is a moment of blinding triumph. She then throws herself in the river, not out of desperation but as a heroic sacrifice, a gesture to awaken others dead to themselves.

Wonder’s towering, schematic set is not necessarily a singer’s friend, often making the characters look inconsequential. But he does surprisingly interesting things with it, especially in projecting images of the Volga on the scrims. Herold’s costumes range from striking to dull to a nuisance -- in the notes he talks about all the movies he’s been influenced by and, sure enough, the women of the Kabanova household have “Star Wars” hair; the villagers carry “Women of the Dunes” umbrellas, etc.

Schaaf seems a bit overwhelmed by Mattila’s searing self-possession, trying too hard at times to make her seem vulnerable. But Janacek’s score doesn’t have a wasted second, and for the most part the director serves up a tense drama.

Kabanicha is so malicious that typically she steals the show. Hanna Schwarz, sounding as robust as ever, is dominating enough that she too might have done so against any singer less commanding than Mattila. Next to these formidable women, the weak and depraved men in the opera haven’t a chance. Richard Decker, though, is an unusually anguished Tichon; Albert Bonnema offers a moderately radiant Boris (Kat’a’s lover); Victor Chernomortsev is a vividly boorish Dickoj (Boris’ merchant uncle). The couple Varvara (Uta Doring) and Kudrjas (Raymond Very) are, not inappropriately, lightweight. The orchestra needs a few more performances to settle into Janacek’s demanding score but, at its best, under Donald Runnicles’ driven yet warm conducting, it was impressive.

*

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‘Kat’a Kabanova’

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

When: Wednesday and Nov. 20, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Nov. 12, 15, 8 p.m.

Price: $24 to $175

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Contact: (415) 864-3330


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