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Kát’a Kabanová Storms Into Philadelphia

Academy of Vocal Arts Opera Theatre
02/22/2008 -  and 24, 26, 28 February and 1 March
Leos Janácek: Kát’a Kabanová
Ariya Sawadivong (Kát’a), Bryan Hymel (Boris), Elspeth Kincaid (Varvara), Nina Yoshida Nelsen (Kabanicha), Cody Austin (Vána Kudrjás), Ryan Kuster (Dikoj), Joseph Demarest (Tichon), Cynthia Cook (Glasa), Steven LaBrie (Kuligin), Jan Cornelius (Feklusa)
Luke Housner (Music Director/Pianist), Peter Harrison (Set Designer), Allen G. Doak, Jr. (Lighting Designer and Technical Director), Val Starr (Costume and Wig Designer), Natalie Kidd (Makeup Designer), Blanka Zizka (Stage Director)

The operas of Leos Janácek are seldom performed in Philadelphia. There is no record of any performance before the Opera Company of Philadelphia produced The Cunning Little Vixen in 1981. In 1999 Simon Rattle led the Philadelphia Orchestra in a concert performance of the second act of Jenufa with Roberta Alexander and Anja Silja. A decade later, the Academy of Vocal Arts Opera Theatre is performing what must be the Philadelphia premiere of Kát’a Kabanová in the intimate Helen Corning Warden Theatre.

The production has been meticulously prepared and rehearsed. Czech diction specialist Timothy Cheek of the University of Michigan coached the cast intensively before music director Luke Housner and stage director Blanka Zizka began rehearsals. All that work paid off in a gripping production that earned the cast and production team ovations.
Janácek's operas demand the special treatment AVA has lavished on I>Kát’a. The Moravian composer spoke in a language of strange and haunting beauty. His concentrated musical idiom is inspired by the speech melody of the Czech language. Janácek’s dramatic sense is as keenly focused - and unique - as his music. Inspired by Alexander Ostrovsky’s The Storm, Kát’a Kabanová portrays a woman trapped in a loveless marriage with a weak man dominated by his overbearing mother. Kát'a discovers love in the arms of a younger man. Haunted by guilt, she confesses her sin and hurls herself into the Volga River.
AVA's production captures the shattering impact of Janácek's tragic opera. Housner and Zizka deserve special credit. The stage director unfolds the drama with focused intensity. Stripping away familiar operatic gestures, she summons spare but urgent acting from her cast. Each of the characters – even the cameo roles - has a distinctive stage profile. Leading the performance from his piano, Housner hones his singers into a taut musical ensemble. Janácek's orchestration has unique instrumental colors, but Housner’s piano recreates the drama in this taut score.

This production stuns the eye. Inspired by Mark Rothko's abstract paintings, Peter Harrison has fashioned a bare but evocative set that swiftly suggests the shifting locales, from a park to the interior of a house and an abandoned church. Simple but telling scenic elements – a branch of a flowering tree, a window – appear from the fly space to suggest the settings. Allen G. Doak Jr.’s atmospheric lighting adds to the visual drama.

Ariya Sawadivong makes a touchingly tender and affecting Kát’a. Singing with deep commitment, she suggests Kát’a’s vulnerability and innocence and then captures the heroine's growing passion. She rises to the testing demands of the tragic final act. As Kát’a’s lover, Boris, tenor Bryan Hymel sings more persuasively than he acts. His tenor rings out impressively. Although her voice lacks weight in its lower register, Nina Yoshida Nelsen suggests the malignant hatred of Boris' domineering mother. Cody Austin and Elspeth Kincaid fashion vivid portrayals of Vána and Varvara, the young lovers who find the happiness that eludes Kát’a and Boris. Kincaid’s eager, sunny Varvara provides a nice contrast to Sawadivong’s haunted Kát’a. Austin’s keenly focused tenor leaves an attractive imprint on Vána’s music. Rounding out the talented cast are Ryan Kuster as the drunken Dikoj and Joseph Demarest as Kát’a’s weak husband.

Robert Baxter



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