West Edge Opera’s wanderings have taken the company to several “interesting” venues, but for its pandemic revival WEO has found a winning space in which to set up shop: the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda, run by the California Shakespeare Festival. It’s the right size, with good acoustics and excellent technical specs, and there’s not a bad seat in the house. Indre Viskontas’s production of Leoš Janáček’s Katya Kabanová, set designed by Dedalus Wainwright, conducted by Music Director Jonathan Khuner, was still stripped-down and kinetic, but at Saturday’s premiere, I didn’t miss the adventure and occasional scruffiness or the acoustic oddities of opera in a found space.
The opera is usually presented as the tragedy of a religious woman in a rural town beset by her villainous mother-in-law, Kabanicha, who drives her to suicide. Some actors and directors, however, have focused as well on Katya’s own labile moods and instability. Viskontas takes this view, urging us to see the conflict as generational, the elders Kabanicha and Dikój (the rich uncle of Katya’s love interest, Boris) expecting respect, demanding fealty to tradition, suspicious of technological innovation and science. The younger people (Katya, her sister-in-law Varvara, and her lover Váňa Kudrjaš) value “authenticity, connection, vulnerability, and hope” (in Viskontas’s words) and see tradition as arbitrary.
Viskontas insists, in her production note, that there are no villains in the piece, only these different points of view. I can’t quite go there with her: While Kabanicha emerges, in Kristin Clayton’s superbly acted performance, as fully human, she still dominates her son Tichon and abuses Katya, fearful that the wife will supplant the mother in Tichon’s affections. She’s a nasty piece of work but understandable. But in framing the central conflict in this way, Viskontas is also hoping to point us to possible parallels with modern California, which is why the show has a contemporary, vaguely 1950s Western design.
Together, Viskontas and Khuner have helped the performers to a detailed understanding of the opera. This is so necessary because Janáček didn’t waste a note in this score. He drastically cut his source material (Aleksandr Ostrovsky’s 1859 realist drama The Storm), and he set the remaining text pretty much at conversational speed —witness, for example, Kudrjaš’s offhand interjections in the first scene, as Boris explains his situation. Janáček was famously, fanatically exact about reproducing Czech speech rhythms in the music so that, even when the music flows into more lyrical passages, there’s no aria-like expansion of time. Even in the pauses, the orchestral flow is filling in details on the characters’ emotions.
The production makes a powerful impression because the singers convey these emotional movements so clearly and naturally. And chief praise goes, as it must, to Carrie Hennessey, who tackles Katya with fearless energy and a beautifully modulated soprano. Viskontas has chosen a simple but telling detail for her: in the orchestral prologue, she enters to the garden bench, high heels off. When she notices her husband sitting next to her, she hurriedly puts them back on. The same thing happens at the end of the seduction scene in Act 2. It’s the freedom she longs for versus the social pressure to conform in one easily understood gesture.
Similarly, Hennessey’s moment to moment switching from cold and unresponsive to over-the-top emotion, so strange at the beginning of the show, is more readable as we understand more about her. Varvara says, of Katya and Boris, “they’re crude, but they get on together,” but that’s really only true of Boris. Katya’s music overpowers his and, in Viskontas’s staging of the seduction scene, she physically takes charge, pulling him in, and then straddling him, and later pushing him away. In the final scene, as Boris delivers his penultimate lines to her, she’s sitting on a bench far upstage looking out at the Volga, where she will drown herself. Hennessey carries all this out with clarity of purpose, which is really what makes the whole thing work.
Clayton was a worthy opponent for Hennessey, filling her many short scenes with feral energy and singing with barely controlled passion. She made every line count. Christopher Oglesby was a sympathetic Boris, singing with winning passion and youthfulness. Tenor Alex Boyer’s Tichon was firmly sung. Sarah Coit was a delight as Varvara, a character who can be a cypher in some productions: In fact, her rebellion is the genuine article; she just hides it better than Katya. Chad Somers provides welcome comic moments as Kudrjaš, while singing strongly and accurately. Phil Skinner is perfectly cast as the overbearing Dikój, and even his grand opera gestures seemed to go with that character.
Needless to say, after all these years, Khuner was masterful in the pit, which was under the stage in this production. His pacing of the score was perfectly judged, his singers, including the small chorus, really bit into their lines, and the chamber orchestra hung together in a score designed for a much bigger one. Running the orchestra through the sound system may have produced a few weird balances, but that’s a small caveat for a production that accomplishes so much and which is so close up that the small moments are readable. You won’t get that in a big opera house.