Wiener Staatsoper Review: Káťa Kabanová (Bad Opera)

This production of a relatively less well-known opera by Leoš Janáček was, unfortunately, probably the most disappointing that I've seen at the Staatsoper. Some of my colleagues have disagreed with me about the quality of the production. I admit that I might have been listening to the cast on an off night or that I may have "missed" the intention of the production or the singers. No review is flawless, but an off night, while not a representation of singer's abilities, still makes for a poor night at the opera. Missing the point of a production may be a failure to understand, but as a well versed operagoer if a reviewer misses the point or fails to understand, it is likely the production is failing to communicate to the audience as a whole.

General information & synopsis:áťaKabanová


Káťa Kabanová | Leoš Janáček

Dirigent | Franz Welser-Möst
Regie | André Engel
Bühne | Nicky Rieti
Kostüme | Chantal de La Coste
Licht | André Diot, Susanne Auffermann
Dramaturgie | Dominique Muller
Regiemitarbeit | Ruth Orthmann
Chorleitung | Thomas Lang

Dikoj | Wolfgang Bankl
Boris | Klaus Florian Vogt
Kabanicha | Deborah Plaski
Tichon | Marian Talaba
Kátja | Janice Watson
Kudrjáš | Gergely Németi
Varvara | Stephanie Houtzeel
Kuligin | Marcus Pelz
Glaša | Alisa Kolosova
Fekluša | Donna Ellen
Ein Mann | Oleg Zalytskiy
Eine Frau | Arina Holecek

The set design fell into a category that might be called "Minimilist Art Deco." The idea here was that the action took place in a Russian neighborhood of New York City in the early 20th Century. Many opera enthusiasts get upset by the "transplant" set concept. It is important not to dismiss this out of hand. Here, for instance, there probably isn't really a reason that the action cannot take place in New York. The issue with the set, however, was that this vision did not seem to add instrumentally to the overall thrust of the opera. A composer (or a playwright, scriptwriter, etc.) chooses a literal setting for their story because this literal setting only can support the characters, plot, and so forth that comprise the story. To take that setting and change it may be a valid interpretation, but only so long as that change is driven by some sort of expression. The idea here, insofar as I can tell, was to make the audience focus on the troubled state of mind of the main character. There were many scenes. The first was of a street with a brick wall behind it and a cityscape behind that, very sparse and in muted colors. In the next scene the stage was confined to a small box of a room, again with muted colors and only a window and a bed on the floor. The second act was comprised of two scenes. One was the crux of two buildings in the city with two different doors, representing the garden in a traditional setting of the opera. The other was a rooftop in two tiers. On the stage right was a small house topping the staircase, on stage left a moderately sized water tower. Finally, in the last act we first went to a rustic stable, essentially no different from the literal setting. for the final scene we returned to a dark shadow of the opening scene with a wall behind the action. This wall eventually opened to reveal the marshy grasses of the river into which Kabanová throws herself. Overall the sets weren't awful, but it felt like the show had been taken and plopped down from one place to another without a lot being added to the actual character of the opera.

Costuming was, incidentally, fairly true to period with a notable exceptions. This exception was the introduction of the man with the black balloons, black suit, black hat, black glasses, and blind man's cane. Once he entered the scene in the final act Kabanicha and her hangers on also came in in black, dramatically changing the tone of the show. This may have been intended as a representation of Kabanová's mental state, but it felt out of place, making the costuming suddenly much more interesting than what was essentially dull beforehand.

The singing in this production seemed to fall into two categories. Either it was difficult to hear, or not pleasant to hear. There was one huge exception, and some singers simply had an air of mediocrity, rather than this specific problem. Nonetheless, as an ensemble the singing was not particularly becoming.

Donna Ellen and Alisa Kolosova in the minor mezzo-soprano roles of Feklusa and Glasa were not showy or stunning, but the roles are small and do not require such voices. Perhaps embarrassing for the rest of the ensemble however, these two women were even and consistent throughout the opera, their relatively dark, if not heavy, voices always audible.
they served their function in the admirable way that often leads comprimario singers to take on more and more illustrious roles over time. Marcus Pelz as Kuligin performed similarly as well, his baritone staying below the radar but solidly carrying his role.

Savël Prokofjevic Dikoj, the bass role in the opera, was played by Wolfgang Bankl. Bankl's voice had a bit of a rasp to it it, lacking a clean, consistent tone. Granted, Dikoj is a somewhat rough character, chastising his son, arguing with Kabanicha, and disputing the source of lightning in the third act. Still, the roughness to the voice did not really feel like it added much to the role. This was particularly emphasized by the fact that while Dikoj was declamatory, Bankl played the role somewhat weakly, as though he was blustering more than actually forceful, a fact reinforced by his BDSM scene with Kabanicha.

Just as in Butterfly, Marian Talaba was atrocious as Tichon. The role seems significant based on who Tichon is as a part of the story. Fortunately, however, Tichon actually has very little stage time. Therefore we were not long subjected to Talaba's shouting, rough, strained voice. It bears questioning from where his success has come. It is tempting to say that perhaps he is taking roles too big for his voice. Despite this, it also seems the only thing that can account for his success is that houses are willing to accept him simply because there are not enough voices for the kind of repertoire he sings. One way or the other, his performance, however small, was awful.

The two romantic tenor roles, Kudrjáš and Boris, played by Gergely Németi and Klaus Florian Vogt, respectively, are interesting compared against each other. The two were like sides of a coin. It was brilliant to cast one lighter and one darker voice to set the two apart. Unfortunately both, whether with more cut and a lighter sound or a larger sound and less cut were often covered by the orchestra. When they were audibly, both felt somewhat mediocre. Certainly, they are not showy tenor roles. Nonetheless, both felt sort of as though they were "going through the motions." Their acting, as well, was unconvincing for the same reason.

Janice Watson, as Kátja herself, brought a voice that, while perhaps good in other repertoire, did not please here. In her lower and even midrange, she was very frequently covered by the orchestra, enough so in fact, that it felt like she was consistently inaudible. She did, however, break out of this in her top range, but unfortunately only to sound shrill. The few moments when the voice shone through in places other than its topmost extension, it was, however, beautiful. Watson's acting was confusing. On the one hand, she did seem to actively attempt to represent Kátja's instability and emotional & psychological descent. On the other hand, her acting in the role did not have a convincing feel. The beginning characterization was not precise enough, and while the subtlety of the descent was appreciable, it lacked anchor points to show us at what stage of instability she had arrived. This made her final snap feel too sudden.

Deborah Plaski's strength in the role of Kabanicha was primarily her bearing and her acting, as well. Her tall stature, drawn-back dark hair, and severe expression embodied the sternness and the cunning Kabanicha exhibits. Though she gave the impression that she relied on this to some extent in lieu of acting  beyond these assets. Nonetheless, it was effective in portraying the character. The misfortune was that her voice did not live up to the role. Even more than Watson's voice in the role of Kátja, Plaski was so frequently covered by the orchestra. Indeed, the voice even when not obscured by the orchestra was not particularly impressive (I mention this because it is important to note that sometimes voices of insufficient size are selected for a role due to their impressive beauty but this was, here, not the case).

The saving grace (although honestly, despite the immensity of the success, could not save the production) in this production was Stephanie Houtzeel's incredible performance as Varvara. Houtzeel's gorgeous mezzo-soprano voice was rich and full throughout her range for the duration of the opera. Nonetheless, it retained a youthful quality and ample squillo. Unlike many of her counterparts, it was never hard to hear Houtzeel. In addition to these excellent vocal assets, Houtzeel was able to utilize her figure and augment it with excellent acting abilities. While it was hard to understand the changes Watson tried to exhibit in Kátja and not readily apparent the impact other characters had on Kátja, Houtzeel, through her girlish, flirtatious, and suggestive acting showed us exactly how (without understanding the consequences, it seemed) she contributed to Kátja's ultimate demise. Houtzeel's every moment on stage demonstrated beautiful yet expressive singing and effective, informed acting.

This production of  Leoš Janáček's Káťa Kabanová was one of two truly disappointing productions at the Wiener Staatsoper. Madame Butterfly was the other. Certainly, here Stephanie Houtzeel exhibited an excellent performance despite the production as a whole, and not every moment in Butterfly was awful. Nonetheless, these were productions that actually went poorly, rather than being on the continuum of acceptable to excellent. It leaves one to wonder (despite his short time on stage here) is it a bad omen to have Marian Talaba in your cast?


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