Under artistic director Aidan Lang’s leadership, Seattle Opera has been breathing a refreshing modernity into an art form that has been around for a few centuries. The company’s current updating of Leoš Janácek’s “Katya Kabanova,” which had its first outing in 1921, involves a 1950s setting and stunning video projections that saturate the entire stage.
The end result, in the hands of the Australian team staging “Katya Kabanova,” at Seattle Opera, packs a potent visceral punch both visually and emotionally. This production leaves no doubt why Leoš Janácek, who wrote both Kabanova’s music and libretto, is now considered one of the 20th century’s best composers of opera.
Stage director Patrick Nolan, production and digital designer Genevieve Blanchett, and lighting and digital designer Mark Howett, all in their Seattle Opera debuts, create a cinematic sensibility to match with the film-score feel of Janácek’s dramatic music.
Small-town 1950s America perfectly suits Janácek’s story of Katya, oppressed by a husband who beats her, a verbally abusive mother-in-law and societal rules that restricted women far more than men. The 1950s was an era in this country when women were often confined to a limited domestic sphere, with no power to do anything else. Even though Katya knows she is risking social ruin, she is driven to escape by pursuing her love for another man, Boris.
The setting for this tale is a bare stage surrounded by towering walls, all of which provide a blank canvas for videos of the village’s natural surroundings, starting off with a bucolic scene of fields and hills. Fleshing out the projections are three-dimensional pieces like a clever white picket fence carried onstage in sections and snapped together by townspeople during an instrumental interlude. The only place the video didn’t completely succeed on opening night last Saturday was in the final scene when just Katya was onstage — some of the changes from one view of the river to another were distracting.
Melody Moore, costumed in ultra-feminine 1950s pink and white, completely embodied the ideal Katya — sweet, spiritual, desperate for love, vulnerable. With a full-bodied voice that could always be heard over the instrumentals even in her most delicately nuanced expression of Katya’s frustrations, fears and joy, Moore was a heartbreaking Katya.
Katya isn’t the only character that appears to be trapped by circumstances. As Tichon, Katya’s abusive husband, Nicky Spence’s strong voice subtly conveyed his vacillation between his overbearing mother’s dictates and his wife’s needs, which spur Tichon to anger and heavy drinking.
Joseph Dennis’ Boris is ensnared by his lack of money, which forces him to meet his uncle’s demands. Dennis has a warmly shaded tenor that sometimes wasn’t strong enough to be heard over the orchestra.
As Katya’s cruel mother-in-law, Kabanicha, Victoria Livengood evokes the specter of Joan Crawford at her Mommie Dearest worst, from her hair to her posture to her ice-cold cruelty. The freezing menace in Livengood’s voice gave me the chills.
Maya Lahyani as the rebellious Varvara, Joshua Kohl as her beau Kudrjas and Stefan Szkafarowsky as Boris’ ill-tempered uncle all delivered fine work.
Sustaining Moore and the rest of the superb cast was the gorgeously moody score performed with eloquence by conductor Oliver Dohnayi and his orchestra, although they occasionally overwhelmed the singers. The Seattle Opera chorus did a lovely job as always of enhancing the action.
Seattle Opera’s “Katya Kabanova” plays at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., through Saturday, March 11. Prices range from $25 to $272. To purchase tickets, or for more information, call 206-389-7676, or visit www.seattleopera.org.
MAGGIE LARRICK is a freelance writer who lives in the Seattle area.