Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Review: Corinne Winters’ Searing Performance as Seattle Opera’s Katya Kabanova, February 26, 2017

February 28th, 2017

The Seattle Opera’s new production of Janacek’s “Katya Kabanova” premiered the evening of February 25 [Review: Seattle Opera Psychodrama – Melody Moore’s Magnificent Katya Kabanova, February 25, 2017]. Janacek’s lush melodic score was performed in a theatrically attractive production.

The production’s second performance was presented the next afternoon with two major cast changes. (My previous review covers the performances of the artists who are scheduled to appear in all seven performances.)

Corinne Winters’ Katya and Scott Quinn’s Boris

Maryland soprano Corinne Winters was vocally secure and dramatically intense, in the challenging role of Katya. Winters conveyed the soul-searing turmoil of a woman with deeply-held religious belief that extra-marital sexual thoughts are mortal sins, yet who accedes to a liaison with Boris while her husband is away.

Katya is the third principal role I have seen Winters assay – following that of Ching-Ling (sung in Mandarin!) [see Review: Santa Fe Opera Shows its Mettle in Mounting Huang Ruo’s “Doctor Sun Yat-Sen” – July 30, 2014] and Melisande [see Review: Imbrailo, Winters and Ketelsen Effective in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Psychoanalytic Take on “Pelléas et Mélisande” – Zurich Opera, May 8, 2016].

[Below: Katya Kabanova (Corinne Winters) returns from church; edited image, based on a Philip Newton photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Texas tenor Scott Quinn was vocally and dramatically effective as Boris, Katya’s seducer.

I have praised Quinn in the role of Steva [Review: A Beautifully Performed “Jenufa” by Byström, Mattila and Burden, San Francisco Opera, June 19, 2016], another Janacek character who likes sex, but not commitment. His comic turn as the barber Pirelli [Review: “Sweeney Todd” at Houston Grand Opera: Nathan Gunn, Director Lee Blakeley Make a Compelling Case for Sondheim as Opera, April 24, 2015] is an example of the diversity of his roles.

[Below: Boris (Scott Quinn, right), although concerned about the fate of Katya (Corinne Winters, left), intends to leave the community alone for better opportunities elsewhere; edited image, based on a Philip Newton photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Kabanov Sociology

Like Janacek’s greatest masterpiece, “Jenufa”, “Katya Kabanova” take place in a rural Slavic village. If the powerful themes of “Jenufa” transcend village life, the emotional oppressiveness of the Kabanov household can seem remote from the world inhabited by 21st century urban operagoers.

The action of the opera revolves around four members of the relatively well-to-do Kabonov household in a rural Russian village – a widow, Kabinicha, her son Tichon and daughter Varvara and her son’s wife Katya.  The opera gives us insight into how a matriarchal family is organized – albeit one in which bad feelings abound.

[Below: Dikoj (Stefan Szkafaworsky, left) seeks comfort from Kabinicha (Victoria Livengood, right); edited image, based on a Philip Newton photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Kabinicha’s role within the Kabanov household is one that has existed throughout history and continues today as a dominant reality in some societies. She is the family’s matriarch, controlling the family’s finances and is the arbiter of the behavior expected of all family members. She has achieved that position through time, assuming it at the death of the matriarch to whom she deferred as a young wife.

Kabinicha and Katya do not like each other, but, had Katya lived, at Kabinicha’s passing, Katya would have become the matriarch. She may have been kinder towards a future daughter-in-law, but Katya would have firm ideas on what her daughter-in-law’s behavior should be.

[Below: Varvara (Maya Lahyani, above) expresses her love for Kudrjas (Joshua Kohl, lying on bench); edited image, based on a Philip Newton photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Kabinicha and Katya are the traditionalists. Katya’s contemporaries – her sister-in-law Varvara,  Kudryas and Boris are of a new generation have no interest in preserving the “old ways”.

Patrick Nolan’s production and staging

In creating a new production for the Seattle Opera’s first-ever performances of “Katya Kabanova”, Patrick Nolan’s most striking innovation was moving the setting from rural Russia to a small American town in the early 1950s.

[Below: Australian director Patrick Nolan; edited image of a publicity photograph.]

Although an American flag and white picket fence crossing the stage are early images, Nolan is not commenting on mid-20th century American society, but rather choosing a point in time and place when some people held rigidly to “traditional values” while other people rejected any hold such values might have on them.

[Below: Victoria Livengood is Kabinicha standing behind a picket fence;  edited image, based on a Jacob Lucas photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Nolan, in collaboration with his Australian colleagues Genevieve Blanchett (production and digital design) and Mark Howett (lighting and digital design), emphasized fast moving scene changes that allowed movement between interior and exterior spaces.

Video projections were used to delineate mountain crags and projections and stage fog created the flowing river in which Katya ended her life.

[Below: Tikhon (Nicky Pence, center, kneeling) grieves over the drowned Katya (Corinne Winters, on ground) as a disapproving Kabinicha (Victoria Livengood, center, standing) looks on; edited image, based on a Philip Newton photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Aiding the scene changes was the imaginative use of props furnishings and partial walls that gave an appearance of solidity. Especially effective was the Kabanov’s picture window with its view of a rapidly moving river.

[Below: Katya (Corinne Winters, center) views the adjacent river through a picture window while Varvara (Maya Lahyani, right) lies on a sofa; edited image, based on a Philip Newton photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Recommendation

I enthusiastically recommend the Seattle Opera Patrick Nolan production of Janacek’s “Katya Kabanova”, and each of the cast combinations offered by the Seattle Opera.

 

Tags: 2005-2017: William's Reviews

Review: Seattle Opera Psychodrama – Melody Moore’s Magnificent Katya Kabanova, February 25, 2017

February 26th, 2017

Australian director Patrick Nolan has created a revelatory new production of Janacek’s “Katya Kabanova” – an opera about the toxic relationship between a widow and her daughter-in-law that ends in the latter’s suicide.

[Below: Melody Moore as Katya in Patrick Nolan’s Seattle Opera production of Janacek’s “Katya Kabanova”; edited image, based on a Philip Newton photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Nolan shifted the time and place from a 19th century Russian village to an American town in the early 1950s. The time shift focuses the opera on the impact that the traditions in which Kabanicha and Katya were raised has on the psychological makeup of each character, as cultural and religious norms disintegrate around them.

Melody Moore’s Katya

Janacek’s story became the vehicle for a powerful performance by Tennessee soprano Melody Moore.

Moore believably portrays the good-hearted Katya, who cannot conform to her mother-in-law Kabinicha’s definition of wifely duty, but is deeply disturbed by her own extramarital sexual attraction, strongly believing that she must atone for the commission of mortal sin.

Moore’s large voice was lyrically beautiful in the opera’s lushly melodic romantic scenes, and dramatically intense in Katya’s fatal final scene at river’s edge.

[Below: Melody Moore as Katya Kabanova; edited image, based on a Philip Newton photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

I have reported on Melody Moore’s succession of challenging dramatic roles, including Senta ]Ryan McKinny, Melody Moore, Jay Hunter Morris Soar in “Flying Dutchman” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 18, 2013] and Lady Macbeth [Review: Gripping Portraits by Eric Owens, Melody Moore in Anne Bogart’s Staging of Verdi’s “Macbeth” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 17, 2015]. See also my interview with her at Rising Stars: An Interview with Melody Moore.

Victoria Livengood’s Kabinicha and Nicky Spence’s Tichon

North Carolina Mezzo-soprano Victoria Livengood gave a bravura performance as Katya’s mother-in-law, the authoritarian Kabinicha, a role that for many opera-goers is one of the great villainesses of opera.

[Below: As matriarch of the Kabanov household, Kabinicha (Victoria Livengood, left) is determined that her son Tichon (Nicky Spence, right) will follow her every instruction; edited image, based on a Philip Newton photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Yet, Livengood’s Kabinicha proved a realistic portrait of a family matriarch, the most senior woman in a household, whose longevity has empowered her as the guardian of the family’s morals, finances and reputation. One can imagine Kabinicha as a young wife, following the often harsh instructions of the matriarch of that time, in a cycle that goes back for countless generations.

I have seen Livengood in character roles of operas by composers as diverse as Verdi, Previn and Corigliano [see Erin Wall, Mark Delavan Are Superb in Elegant New Production of “Arabella” – Santa Fe Opera, August 1, 2012], but Kabinicha is a meaty role that provides Livengood the opportunity to demonstrate her expansive range of vocal and dramatic skills.

Scottish tenor Nicky Spence brilliantly performed the role of Kabinicha’s son, the weak, tortured Tichon.

Joseph Dennis’ Boris

California Tenor Joseph Dennis was convincing in the role of Boris, whose interest in a sexual liaison with the married Katya does not extend to the idea of a long-term relationship with her.

[Below: Boris (Joseph Dennis, left) finally gets an opportunity to be alone with Katya (Melody Moore, right); edited image, based on a Philip Newton photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Like Steva in Janacek’s “Jenufa”, who leaves the woman he seduces to deal with the affair’s disastrous consequences without him, Boris disappears when he is needed most.

My previous review of Joseph Dennis was of his last minute assumption for the American premiere and all following performances of the title role of Huang Ruo’s opera “Doctor Sun Yat-Sen” at the Santa Opera, which was performed in Mandarin [see Review: Santa Fe Opera Shows its Mettle in Mounting Huang Ruo’s “Doctor Sun Yat-Sen” – July 30, 2014]. (Corinne Winters, who sings Katya Kabanova in the alternate cast in this Seattle Opera run, sang the role of Yat-Sen’s wife, Ching-Ling.)

Maya Lahyani’s Varvara, Joshua Kohl’s Kudrjas and other Cast Members

The “Katya”  comprimario roles were well-cast throughout, led by the Maya Lahyani as Kabanicha’s free-spirited daughter Varvara and Pennsylvania tenor Joshua Kohl as her intellectual boyfriend Kudrjas.

Kohl was an appealing Kudrjas, who pursues Varvara while helping create an erotic mood for Katya’s fateful meetings with Boris. Neither Kudrjas nor Varvara have sympathy for either Kabinicha’s old ways nor Katya’s belief in the need for punishment for mortal sin.

Earlier this decade, Israeli mezzo-soprano Maya Lahyani, then an Adler Fellow in San Francisco Opera’s Young Artists program, was impressive in the smaller roles she sang then.

As Varvara, Lahyani demonstrates that she possesses the vocal and dramatic abilities for much larger assignments.

[Below: Katya (Melody Moore, left) is encouraged by her sister-in-law Varvara (Maya Lahyani, right) to pursue her romantic inclinations; edited image, based on a Jacob Lucas photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Others in the cast were New York bass Stefan Szkafarowsky as Dikoj, Idaho soprano Jennifer Cross as Glasha, Georgia baritone Joseph Lattanzi as Kuligin and Washington mezzo-soprano Susan Salas as Feklusha.

The musical performance and staging

Maestro Oliver von Dohnanyi conducted the Seattle Opera orchestra with an obvious high regard for the melodic sweep of Janacek’s score. (He is a distant cousin of Christoph von Dohnanyi, one of the great 20th century conductors of Janacek’s operas.)

Because there are alternate principal artists in the roles of Katya and Boris, and I am reviewing both casts, I will discuss Patrick Nolan’s direction and the brilliant Production, Lighting and Digital Designs of Australian designers Genevieve Blanchett and Mark Howett in detail in my second review [see Review: Corinne Winters’ Searing Performance as Seattle Opera’s Katya Kabanova, February 26, 2017.]

Recommendation

I recommend the opera, cast and production enthusiastically to the veteran operagoer, and to adventurous newcomers to opera.

Tags: 2005-2017: William's Reviews

Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2016

February 23rd, 2017

Over 11 years ago, I began the series of reviews, interviews and essays that constitute the content of the www.operawarhorses.com website. Later in 2017, I expect to post my 500th opera live performance review.

At the end of each of the past eight years, I’ve posted essays that I call “thoughts and assessments”, in which I discuss issues relating to the live performance of opera.

What Should an Opera Review be About?

I have used these year-end essays in part to explain the criteria I employ for my own reviews. Most important, I believe an opera performance review should concentrate on the performance – the principal singers, orchestra, chorus, staging, set designs and the overall experience. A world premiere or revival of a little known opera will usually require a more detailed discussion of the opera itself.

All of my reviews are opera performances. I attend a lot of operas (including “musicals” performed by opera companies) each year both in the North America and abroad, and write occasional essays about the operas themselves (which my reviews might hyperlink). But I don’t review ballets, or chamber music or symphonies, or theater outside of opera. This allows more time to prepare for any performance I am scheduled to review.

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[Below: Ezekial Cheever (Ian Koziara, center) takes the testimony of Giles Corey (Chaz’men Williams-Ali) as Judge Danforth (Jay Hunter Morris, right) listens skeptically, in the 2016 Francesca Zambello Glimmerglass Festival production of Ward’s “The Crucible”; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

[For my performance review, see: Review: Mulligan, Barton, Zambello, Paiement Make the Case for “The Crucible” – Glimmerglass Festival, August 5, 2016.]

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Regardless of who is writing, all performance reviews are subjective, and may or may not be helpful to persons attempting to learn about a performance they attended, to confirm their own reaction to that performance and perhaps to find an explanation of why the opera was performed in a particular way.

Others might read the review to decide whether to invest the time and money to attend a later performance. Some may wish to read reviewers’ comments on how a particular artist performed and what the reviewer thought about the production.

What Should Not be in a Performance Review?

Any critic who regularly reviews operatic productions likely wishes privately that certain operas would be performed more often and other operas less often, if at all. In the past couple of years, I’ve cited unfair comments by lead critics of local “newspapers of record”, one excoriating the local opera company’s management for mounting Verdi’s “La Traviata”, another newspaper critic blasting his company for mounting Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” too often.

These are hardly performance reviews, but messages to the opera company’s management that the reviewer dislikes seeing familiar fare too often and wishes that some other work would have been performed instead. In both cases the negative reviews were unfair to the artists. The casts were of international caliber in intelligent productions, the musical and dramatic performances well done.

The lead time for a major company choosing an opera for its repertory begins years before the performance, and once the final decision on the opera is made, virtually irrevocable contracts are signed. The economics of running a leading opera company do not permit the company to avoid scheduling at least some of the most popular works as part of a season.

Embedding destructive comments in a performance review that decry opera company management’s repertory choices cannot have a constructive outcome. Such comments, if the critic feels a shot across management’s bow is warranted, would be more appropriate in a separate essay, perhaps discussing the opera season just completed, or the upcoming season just announced.

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[Below: Women arrange the bier of Juliette in Santa Fe Opera’s Stephen Lawless production of Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

[For my performance review, see: Review: A Surprise at Santa Fe Opera – Joshua Guerrero joins Pérez, Aceto in Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette”, July 29, 2016.]

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Preserving the Operatic Performance Legacy

One of my areas of interest, that I’ve discussed in this annual series of “Thoughts and Assessments” is what I have regarded as a lack of adequate investment by opera companies, libraries or institutions founded in support of the arts, music or drama in the archiving the history of operatic performance.

I think few people appreciate how much work goes into an operatic production – often years of preparation costing hundreds of thousands of dollars for a work that might be performed five or six times. Some of these productions will be fortunate enough to be revived by the company and/or used by other companies, and production rentals might even be a source of opera company revenues.  In too many cases, however, an opera company, having insufficient space or and inadequate rental budget to store past productions will cart them off to the junkyard.

More often than not, I suspect, there is not even what I would regard as a proper photographic record of what the production looked like. (Here performance DVDs may be useful, although the DVD is a movie of the performance, showing what the DVD producers and editors wish us to see, rather than a mechanism for recording the details of the set design or the costumes.)

In my reports on excellent productions of Boito’s “Mefistofele” [Review: “Mefistofele” Impressively Performed by Schrott, Castronovo, Penda and Blue in New Philipp Himmelmann Production – Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, May 16, 2016] and Wagner’s “Das Liebesverbot” [Review: Mariame Clément Mounts Wagner’s “Liebesverbot”: Opéra du Rhin, Strasbourg, May 17, 2016], I praised the inventiveness of the costumes the Baden-Baden and Strasbourg choruses wore (each individualized to represent a different character).

There is no way these costumes could have produced without the collaboration of the creators of the production working with perceptive costume designers and extraordinary craftsmen who realized the designs.

In my ongoing conversations with British director John Pascoe, he has detailed the complex processes required to develop a single new costume for soprano Renée Fleming for a Metropolitan Opera production of Verdi’s “La Traviata” [see Dressing Renée Fleming’s Violetta: A Conversation with John Pascoe, Part 7].

One imagines there was great satisfaction from the Baden-Baden and Strasbourg costume staffs in their products for the new “Mefistofele” and “Liebesverbot” productions. But there were no production photos of the choral costumes in the detail that I would have wished to accompany my performance reviews available when I needed them.

If I discover that a photograph record of those costumes has been made, I offer as much space on the www.operawarhorses.com website as would be needed needed to share them with a larger audience.

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[Below: Amneris (Ekaterina Semenchuk, right) seeks the attention and love of Radames (Brian Jagde, left) in Francesca Zambello’s 2016 San Francisco Opera production of Verdi’s “Aida”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

[For my performance review, see: Review: Zambello’s Spectacular “Aida”, San Francisco Opera, November 5, 2016.]

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What should be done to preserve the operatic performance heritage, so much of which is lost each year? There are some promising green shoots.  At the San Francisco Opera, an institution that will be celebrating its centennial year early in the next decade, and the opera company with whose performances I have the longest association, preservation of its history and legacy has become a major concern.

That company has hired professional archival staff and has provided that staff with resources to collect and organize the myriad of residual materials – programs, recordings, photographs, testimonials, props, costumes – whatever can be located and preserved.

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[Below: Edward Kynaston (Ben Edquist) performs the role of Desdemona in The Bard’s “Othello” in the world premiere of Carlisle Floyd’s “The Prince of Players”; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

[For my performance review, see: World Premiere: A Triumphant “Prince of Players” for Composer Carlisle Floyd, Baritone Ben Edquist – Houston Grand Opera, March 5, 2016.]

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The www.operawarhorses.com “50 Year Anniversary” Features

The new San Francisco Opera investment in its archives meshes with one of this website’s activites.

Each of the San Francisco Opera performances I attended five or more decades ago are (or will soon be) the subject of my “50-year anniversary” observances. The list of opera stars I was able to see is live performance through 1967 includes Licia Albanese, Ettore Bastianini, Sesto Bruscantini, Boris Christoff, Regine Crespin, Mario del Monaco, Victoria de los Angeles, Sir Geraint Evans, Leyla Gencer, Tito Gobbi, Reri Grist, Hans Hotter, Marilyn Horne, Dorothy Kirsten, Alfredo Kraus, Cornell MacNeil, Jolanda Meneguzzer, Birgit Nilsson, Luciano Pavarotti, Leontyne Price, Leonie Rysanek, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Cesare Siepi, Giulietta Simionato, Joan Sutherland, Renata Tebaldi, Jess Thomas, Richard Tucker, Jon Vickers and Leonard Warren.

There were historic reasons (probably unduplicatable) why such an illustrious and famous list of opera stars all performed in San Francisco in the late 1950s and 1960s. I believe that discussing those historic reasons will yield insights into how the San Francisco Opera became one of the world’s most important opera companies.

My work with the San Francisco Opera archival staff and on these remembrances have inspired me to begin yet another website feature –  occasional essays about the significance and importance of the San Francisco Opera in the evolution of opera performance in the mid-20th century and beyond.

These will begin later this year, and will include one of the memorable events that occurred in San Francisco 50 years ago – the beginning of the San Francisco Opera director Kurt Herbert Adler’s association with a 32-year old Italian tenor, Luciano Pavarotti.

 

For my previous year-end essays, see:

Opera in Live Performance: Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2009, Part One

Opera in Live Performance: Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2009, Part Two

Opera in Live Performance, Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2010, Part One

Opera in Live Performance, Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2010, Part Two

Opera in Live Performance, Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2010, Part Three

Opera in Live Performance, Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2011, Part One

Opera in Live Performance, Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2011, Part Two

Opera in Live Performance: Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2012, Part One

Opera in Live Performance: Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2012, Part Two

Opera in Live Performance: Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2013,

Opera in Live Performance: Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2014,

Opera in Live Performance: Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2015.

 

 

 

 

Tags: 2005-2016 William's Commentaries