Katya’s Cabin Fever - Katya Kabanova & NZ Opera
By Max Rashbrooke
Until Saturday, October 14
NZ Opera’s production of Katya Kabanova starts with the eponymous heroine standing as a tiny figure against a vast, dark backdrop which gradually reveals thousands of stars; reflected in the stage floor, they appear to surround and even flow through her. It is a powerful image of one woman alone in the cosmos, hoping for more enchantment than life can really offer her.
Does the opera deliver on this promising opening? Only in part. As Katya, Dina Kuznetsova is superb: a talented actor who is able to convey all of her character’s thwarted longing and naïve dreams, and a singer of wonderful intelligence and fluidity. All round the acting and singing are very good, with great turns from Conal Coad (as Dikoj) and Margaret Medlyn (as Kabanicha) as the old establishment figures providing the menace and small-town malice that encircle the heroine.
James Benjamin Rodgers and Hayley Sugars (as Kudrjas and Varvara) are particularly charming and natural actors, a vital foil for the darkness elsewhere in the opera and a moral counterpart to the hypocritical, cod-Old-Testament morality of the older generation. And the playing by the NZSO is nothing short of brilliant, with all the rich textures and emotional depth of Janacek’s score brought out with great sensitivity.
But while the sets are vivid and well-crafted in the main, there were also some confusing choices made in this production, to my mind at least. The opera is supposedly transplanted from Eastern Europe to mid-century America, but so redolent is Janacek’s music of his region, and so clumpy was the clothing, that it felt more like a Russian idea of what America might have looked like, rather than the real thing.
The extensive use of projected images as backdrops was partially effective, especially when matched to the rest of the staging, as when shifting images of fog were paired with the real (simulated) thing pouring out onto the stage. But at times, when they weren’t aligned, the effect was a little too close to a computer screensaver for my liking. I can see the contrasts that the production team were trying to conjure up; they just didn’t quite land right for me.
The start of Act III is also oddly staged, with the townsfolk ostensibly sheltering from a storm in the ruins of a church but with no such ruins visible, leaving various characters apparently exposed to the elements and pointing out old paintings that no-one can see. And the Act I device of having much of the action take place behind a white picket fence, while clever, had a mild distancing effect on said action.
It doesn’t help that, even by the standards of opera, Katya Kabanova has a pretty thin plot and backstory, with clumsy exposition, people falling in love at a moment’s glance, and characters pouring out their deepest thoughts within seconds of their main entries. The other main weakness is that Katya’s love interest, Boris (Angus Wood), is played without much spark, and it is thus rather difficult to see why she would fall for him as an upgrade on her hopelessly henpecked husband Tichon. Of course Boris is being bullied as well (by Dikoj), but some sense of his smouldering under the insult would have rendered the love affair more believable and made it all the more poignant when – spoiler alert! – she is abandoned by him and left to her fate in a universe that is very bleak indeed.