Jovanovich makes impressive debut, Mattila disappoints in Lyric’s uneven “Katya”

Mon Nov 23, 2009 at 2:23 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Boris (Brandon Jovanovich) and Katya (Karita Mattila) in Leoš Janáček’s Katya Kabanova. Photo by Dan Rest.

Sunday morning’s paper brought news of the death of Elisabeth Soderstrom, the Swedish soprano whose acclaimed performances of Leoš Janáček’s tragic heroines did much to popularize the Czech composer’s operas.

Another celebrated Scandinavian, Karita Mattila, has taken the mantle as today’s reigning Janáček soprano, and the Finnish singer opened the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Janáček’s Katya Kabanova Sunday afternoon at the Civic Opera House.

Janáček’s world is a strange and dark place, a landscape of shadows, hidden motivations and horrific cruelty where fragile people and tender emotions like love don’t stand a chance.

Katya Kabanova is a vibrant, passionate woman who is trapped in a soul-crushing marriage with the weak Tichon, dominated by his mean-spirited, controlling mother, Kabanicha, who resents Katya’s youth and beauty.

Katya’s bleak, loveless existence has a chance at brief happiness with Boris, who is himself under the thumb of his wealthy uncle, Dikoj. When Tichon departs on a business trip, the couple are aided in a midnight rendezvous by Katya’s adopted sister Varvara, while she meets with her own admirer, the light-hearted Kudrjas. Yet Katya is overwhelmed with grief and guilt and ultimately confesses the affair to her husband and mother-in-law. Convinced that she has become an outcast from the small Russian village, she drowns herself in the Volga river.

The characters’ intense emotions and violent internal conflicts are painted in broad and subtle strokes in Janáček’s remarkable score, which offers moments of heart-stopping lyric beauty amid the tart wind writing, angular brass fragments and harmonic palette that evoke a rustic, almost pagan take on Czech folk music.

This is only the Lyric’s second production of Katya and the first in over two decades. Yet even with the star power of Mattila in the title role, Sunday’s opening performance proved a disappointment, with Mattila sounding under the weather, a drab Minimalist production, feckless stage direction and an overall lack of electricity that made for decidedly uneven results.

Considering the Finnish soprano’s bona fides in Janáček, one expected much more in a role she has performed all over the world, including the Met in this very same production. Yet on Sunday Mattila’s voice sounded dry and surprisingly thin, as if she were suffering from a cold. She improved somewhat as the opera unfolded, bringing ardent feeling to the love duet and intense commitment to Katya’s long tortured final scene. But overall, one expected more vocal richness and less generalized acting from a singer of Mattila’s reputation in this repertoire.

The finest moments Sunday came from Brandon Jovanovich as Boris, making a terrific Lyric Opera debut. The American tenor has the looks, charisma and big febrile voice, which can make one understand Katya’s fatal attraction. In addition to singing with a warm, echt-Slavic timbre, Jovanovich provided the most well-rounded characterization, firmly etching the young man’s conflicted emotions and intense attraction to the married Katya.

Judith Forst was admirable as the cold-blooded Kabanicha, singing with solid mezzo tone, if not bringing much individuality to her portrayal.

Jason Collins as Katya’s put-upon husband, Tichon, seemed determined to play the submissive character against type, but went too far in the other direction. With this vehemently angry Tichon kicking chairs and pounding tables, it was hard to believe he would allow himself to be so dominated by his mother.

Completing Katya’s trifecta of tenors was Garrett Sorenson. Also making his Lyric debut, Sorenson was ideal as the cheerful Kudrjas, his attractive tenor making the most of his Act 2 folksong. Andrew Shore proved aptly odious as Boris’s miserly blowhard uncle with private masochistic tendencies (the scene where Dikoj begs Kabanicha to punish him remains one of the most bizarre moments in the regular opera canon).

As Varvara, Liora Grodnikaite displayed a lovely, crystalline mezzo but overdid the girlish smiling with too many ingenue cutesy-isms.

That, like much of the stilted staging, must be blamed on director Paula Williams. Time and again, her blocking of the principals was either statically blank or chaotic (the Act 3 church scene). Often she had the singers indulge in overly busy movements or bizarre gestures that diluted the impact of the opera’s most crucial moments, like Katya twirling in circles during her aria.

Robert Israel’s scenic design, imported from the Metropolitan Opera, reflects the stifling oppressive environment of the Russian village with its claustrophobic sets for the Kabanova household and church. Yet the bare, ultra-Minimalist open stage for the opening and closing scenes just looked plain and drab, the clapboard exterior of the Kabanova house evoking 1930s Terre Haute more than 19th-century Russia.

In his Lyric Opera debut, Markus Stenz proved an alert, reliable presence in the pit. The German conductor hews to the Brno rather than Prague school of Janáček, emphasizing the pungent winds and rough edges of the orchestration. At times, one wanted greater weight and amplitude to the lyrical moments and his intimate view of the score felt a size too small for the opera’s primary emotions, though Stenz and the orchestra whipped up an imposing cataclysm in the storm scene.

Janáček’s Katya Kabanova runs at the Lyric Opera of Chicago through Dec. 12.; 312-332-2244.

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One Response to “Jovanovich makes impressive debut, Mattila disappoints in Lyric’s uneven “Katya””

  1. Posted Nov 23, 2009 at 3:59 pm by Hank Browne

    This is a beautifully written review. I listened to the opening “night” broadcast and found Mattila’s performance ok, sometimes glorious, on my moderately upscale speakers via the Internet.

    I shall return here after December 7 when Ive seen it live. And yes Stenz and the orchestra were definitely the stars of the broadcast. I didnt get much of a feel for Jovanovich.

    Matilla is probably still “indisposed” which she was when unable to attend the Lyric Discovery event on November 17 as scheduled. My guess is that she will return to full form as she was for Fidelio when she performed here at Lyric.

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