Earlier in the year, I read The Art of Noise by Alex Ross, the “classical” music critic for the New Yorker. His book is a chronicle of the evolution of western classical music in the 20th century and the various political, social, and artistic upheavals that influenced it. Ross emphasizes the key role that opera played in these developments; he writes at length about Strauss’ Salomé, Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and Britten’s Peter Grimes. The book motivated me to make an effort to see more 20th century opera.
Fortunately, the Lyric Opera has performances of Janacek’s (excuse the missing accents) Katya Kabanova, which is based on The Storm, a 19th century play by Alexander Nikolayevich Ostrovsky. It was composed in 1921 during a period in which Janacek was pining for Kamila Stösslová, a young, married woman he had met while summering in a spa town. It is obvious how strong a muse Stösslová must have been for Janacek – Katya is a passionate, emotional, and warm woman who seeks the affection of Tichon, her husband. However, it is strongly hinted that he cares more for the bottle, perhaps as a way of dealing with his mother’s reverse-Oedipal issues. Kabanicha, Katya’s mother-in-law, is a domineering matriarch who insists on conforming to society’s rigid moral codes. Katya, unable to breathe beneath the familial pressure, finds an outlet in a young stranger, Boris, who is new to the small town. The fallout ends predictably in tragedy.
The Finnish superstar Karita Mattila is flawless in the starring role. Mattila caused a stir in New York when she stripped completely during the “Dance of the Seven Veils” in the Met’s 2004 production of Salomé. In essence, she had me at “Hello”, or whatever the first word in the libretto for Katya is. Mattila’s voice has the emotive range to display the conflict and love pouring from Katya: her singing in the scene with Varvara and Katya in the Kabanov house and in the riverbank scene are equally mesmerizing. Janacek’s naturalistic style does away with the big arias and interloping recitatives; instead, lyricism flows throughout the score. There wasn’t a moment of boredom.
I think the most effective line in the libretto comes at the end of the play. While Tichon weeps over Katya’s body, which has just been pulled from the river, Kabanicha addresses the silent onlookers from the side, “May I thank you for the way you have helped us.” The equivocation is chilling.