My Favorite Opera DVDs: “Kat’a Kabanova”

Leos Janacek’s stature as one of the last century’s most significant composers finally seems secure and unshakable. Even the severe Pierre Boulez has come around in recent years, marshaling his resources to produce an admirable DVD of Janacek’s last work, the bleak 1928 masterpiece From the House of the Dead. The man from Brno, Moravia — derided as a “scrap-by-scrap composer” by the powerful English critic Ernest Newman back in 1951 — is recognized today as one of the most original figures of his time, having devised a new language that melds elements as disparate as folksong, late Romanticism and early 20th century modernism, is in some ways a precursor of minimalism, and incorporates in musical terms the composer’s lifelong fascination with “natural” speech rhythms.

Despite the acceptance, our knowledge of Janacek still tends to rest on little more than a dozen works – the five of his operas that are established in the international repertoire, the two string quartets, the Glagolitic Mass, the symphonic poem Taras Bulba, the Sinfonietta, and the powerful piano essays In the Mists and the Sonata 1.X.1905 “From the Street.” Janacek produced many more pieces that are rarely heard, if at all, and our judgment on what he had to offer remains incomplete until that music is better known.

For me, his most affecting works are the operas Kat’a Kabanova and Jenufa, and the last-mentioned piano sonata – all marked by tragedy, the remorseless march of fate and (the bittersweet ending of Jenufa notwithstanding) an elemental despair that the poetry and pathos of the music underscores in often breathtaking fashion.

Since this brief series concerns itself with my “favorite” opera DVDs (and not any technical benchmarks), I highly recommend the 1988 Glyndebourne Festival television production of Kat’a Kabanova conducted by Andrew Davis – even though the location recording of the London Philharmonic is thin and lacks resonance. One’s ears adjust fairly quickly to the sound; the singing is superb, the music beautiful, the story gripping, the spare, expressionist-tinged set design unique and effective.

It has been noted by many over the years that Janacek, like Modest Mussorgsky, sought truth over beauty – never more so than in the searing Kat’a, completed in 1921. Though rarely described this way, it is a story about danger – specifically, the danger in which one can be placed when the desperate need to be loved intensely trumps all other considerations. Secondly, the opera examines the transitory nature of love, how its flames can burn brightly then leave hopes smoldering in the ashes. Along its 100-minute course, Kat’a (based on The Thunderstorm, by the mid-19th century Russian playwright Aleksandr Ostrovsky) also offers eloquent commentary on the emptiness of bourgeois life in an isolated village, weakness of character, the impetuousity and naivete of youth, and the psychological domination of others through anger, bluster and sexuality.

This particular production is elevated above the merely respectable by the extraordinary performance of Nancy Gustafson in the title role. In her early 30s at the time, Gustafson’s Midwest farm girl-like good looks are perfect from a visual standpoint. Her character’s basic bubbly innocence is soon to be undone by a breakdown triggered by her loneliness and the impossibility of escape, compounded by wrenching humiliation when her extramarital affair with the hapless Boris (sung by the late Barry McCauley) comes to light. We are already clear that Kat’a is headed for trouble by the time her husband leaves for the city on business, a theme also taken up by Dmitri Shostakovich a dozen or so years later in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. But while Shostakovich’s Katerina is driven by boredom and lust, Kat’a yearns to experience a full love for what turns out to be the only time in her brief life.

The Glyndebourne staging has a raft of haunting and often wordless moments masterfully devised by director Nikolaus Lehnhoff and focusing mainly on Gustafson’s face. One of the most unforgettable is her second-act hesitation by the door Kat’a has stepped through to meet Boris face to face for the first time. As Janacek’s uneasy music hovers above, her conflicted expression says it all. It’s a perilous move she is making, risking everything for the dubious attentions of a man she knows next to nothing about. But her married life is so suffocating that she succumbs quickly enough — “Your will has conquered my will” — to Boris’ passionate declarations of love. The die is cast.

The final minutes of Act 2 contain some of Janacek’s most beautiful music, as the lovers disappear for the banks of the Volga, their ecstatic voices heard offstage soaring against the nighttime stars and sky. The scene winds down near dawn with the unfailingly moving duet by Vanya (John Graham-Hall) and Varvara (Louise Winter), gentle enablers of the infidelity: “It is night and far from home; maidens should no longer roam. … I am young and I shall stay out until the break of day.”

The brief idyll collapses in Act 3 – not only with the catastrophic revelation of the affair but Boris’ uncomplaining acceptance of a familial exile in Siberia (“Well, I am a free agent. For me there is no problem.”) He shuffles off and leaves Kat’a to face the contempt and ostracism alone. Gustafson’s disheveled appearance in the final scene leaves no doubt that Kat’a has lost the will to live. After a contented couple stroll by oblivious to her agony, she muses, “Once, women like me would be put to death. … And yet death will not come.” The departure of Boris brings no relief, only further heartache. Her final monologue, accompanied by hushed, trilling major/minor figures in the orchestra, seals the decision that suicide is the only option for a woman unable to find a fulfilling role in a straightjacketed society only belatedly emerging from the structures of feudalism.

Gustafson’s singing throughout Kat’a is marvelous in its delicacy and range of emotions. She was a brilliant choice for this production, as was the singer awarded the only other powerful role – the great Felicity Palmer as the sadistic mother-in-law Kabanicha. The men are fine as well, but Kat’a – like Jenufa – is an opera about women. One’s perception cannot help but be colored by what we now know about the composer’s late-in-life and long-lived infatuation with Kamila Stosslova, a married woman nearly 40 years his junior. As this situation was as hopeless and impossible as that of Kat’a, Janacek used the music to convey his deepest feelings in the only manner Stosslova could find acceptable.

Leos Janacek: “Kat’a Kabanova” — with Nancy Gustafson, Felicity Palmer, Ryland Davies, Barry McCauley, John Graham-Hall, Louise Winter; Andrew Davis conducting the London Philharmonic. 1988. 100 minutes. Kultur  D0036

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