Russian Tenement Lends New Twist To ‘Katja’s’ Anguish

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Katja (Sabina Cvilak) stands up to her abusive mother-in-law (Dalia Schaechter); Varvara (Silvia Hauer) stands by. Production photos by Paul Leclaire.
Katja (Sabina Cvilak) defies her mother-in-law (Dalia Schaechter); Varvara (Silvia Hauer) stands by.
(Production photos by Paul Leclaire)
By Susan Brodie

WIESBADEN, Germany – The exuberantly rococo Grosses Haus is one component of the Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden, built in 1894 as a cultural enhancement to the famous spa frequented by Europe’s rich and famous. In 1896, the May Festival was established to coincide with Kaiser Wilhelm’s annual visit to take the waters. From its earliest days, Germany’s second summer festival after Bayreuth presented theater, ballet, and concerts as well as opera, and today the Staatstheater maintains a robust and diverse program covering many genres and eras as well as programs for children. There are five performance spaces, ranging from the 1,041-seat rococo Opera House (Großes Haus) to the 89-seat Studio.

Katja (Sabina Cvilak), under Boris Putin's gaze from a bus shelter.
Katja (Sabina Cvilak), under Putin’s gaze from a bus shelter.

I’d visited the opera house once before, in 2011, for a Tosca that impressed with its emphasis on the modernity of Puccini’s score, underlined by the updated staging and the excellence of the playing and singing. A visit last May, however, raised questions: though certain celebrity performances were sold out, an intriguing double bill of Poulenc’s La Voix humaine and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, both including well-known singers, was alarmingly undersold, such that ticketholders for the balcony were given seats in the front rows of the theater. A long-time subscriber shared a litany of complaints about new intendant Uwe Eric Laufenberg, who also directed the Bartók.

Laufenberg has worked almost entirely in German-speaking countries as an actor as well as theatrical and opera director. He seems to welcome challenges: he stepped in to direct Bayreuth’s upcoming new production of Parsifal after the departure of the original director. To judge from his elegant and effective Bluebeard’s Castle, he has good taste and theatrical sense; to judge from some of his repertoire choices, he’s not afraid to take risks.

Longtime patrons chafing over change is one thing, but poor ticket sales is another. While the company reports 82% of available tickets sold for 2015, a modest increase over 2014, the figure includes performances in all genres, so it’s hard to come to any conclusions. With relatively modest ticket prices (the best seats to most opera performances top out at 50-60 euros), it’s still the more standard repertoire that sells best.

Varvara (Silvia Hauer) urges Boris (Mirko Roschkowski) to meet with Katja.
Varvara (Silvia Hauer) urges Boris (Mirko Roschkowski) to meet with Katja.

To some extent, Laufenberg has allotted performance numbers this season accordingly – thirteen of Hansel and Gretel, nine of Madama Butterfly – but he also scheduled six performances of Elektra, eight of Janáček’s Katja Kabanova, and six of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s monumental Die Soldaten, three of them during the May Festival. The three post-festival performances of Die Soldaten, at regular prices, are virtually sold out, and the final Katjas are about 75% sold, which isn’t bad for Janáček, a composer whose continued low profile prompted remarks like “This should be interesting,” overheard as I entered the theater on Feb. 7 to see the new production.

The story of Katja is simple: a spirited young woman unhappily married to a man dominated by his mother yields to another man while her husband is away. Wracked with guilt, she confesses her sin and throws herself into the river. Based on The Storm, a play by Alexander Ostrovsky, Vincenc Červinka’s libretto comes to its crisis with a fierce storm that frightens the entire village, but especially Katja, who loses her composure and blurts out the confession that shames her husband and her lover as well as herself.

the young lovers meet secretly at night: Varvara and Kudrjasch, Katja and Boris,
The lovers meet secretly at night: Varvara and Kudrjasch, Katja and Boris.

South African stage director Matthew Wild’s production places the action in today’s Russia: Putin’s face, larger than life, glares from a bus shelter in front of the concrete apartment block where the characters live. The action takes place on the playground downstage (sets by Matthias Schaller and Susanne Füller, lighting by Ralf Baars, costumes also by Susanne Füller), which includes a shallow wading pool. During the overture, a young girl plays alone on a swing and splashes in the pool; as the music approaches its climax, she sits down on the curb, slides away a manhole cover, and slips into the sewer.

The cast could have been pulled off the street today: youths in hoodies, men and women going about their business, always someone observing or commenting on the action from an apartment window. The community creates a kind of claustrophobia that heightens Katja’s unhappiness over her marriage, her vague desires, her frustration.

Varvara (Silvia Hauer) and Kudrjasch (Benedikt Nawrath).
Varvara (Silvia Hauer) and Kudrjasch (Benedikt Nawrath).

Janáček’s vibrant, joyous music belies the protagonists’ impossible barriers to happiness. Wild uses water as a symbol for life, particularly the erotic energy that flows through the drama and through Janáček’s music. The younger characters think nothing of getting their feet wet, but Kabanicha, Katja’s monstrous mother-in-law, never goes near the edge of the pool (and it’s probably no coincidence that she’s always within a few feet of the Putin poster). Her son, Tichon, Katja’s ineffectual husband, also stays out of the pool.

The most effective scene may be the second of Act II. During the opening measures, a young man stealthily approaches the apartment block and flips himself onto the second floor porch over the entrance. Another young man lets him in the window; they kiss and then disappear. In the play yard below, Varvara and Kudrjash embrace while Katja and Boris approach one another hesitantly. But nature takes its course, and the couple disappear behind the bus shelter. A fluorescent tube explodes and the roof of the shelter catches fire, as their cries of ecstasy echo in the music. The obvious gimmick is a little silly, but the effect was quite stirring.

The production’s most satisfying quality was its musicality. Stage gestures were calibrated to the score, more than the libretto, avoiding the pitfall of excessive cleverness. The updating made sense – even Katja’s lapse into madness, which originally was attributed to her religious scruples.

 Katja (Sabina Cvilak), Tichon (Aaron Cawley), and Vladimir.
Katja (Sabina Cvilak), Tichon (Aaron Cawley), and Vladimir Putin.

Singing by the principals was on a high level, with particularly good work from the three tenors: Mirko Roschkowski as Boris, Katja’s lover; Aaron Cawley as Tichon; and Benedikt Nawrath as Kudrjasch, Varvara’s sweetheart. Sabina Cvilak, as Katja, showed flashes of Slavic steel in her warm-voiced, touching portrayal of the naive, restless young bride. Silvia Hauer was a plummy sounding, vivacious Varvara (Katja’s sister), and Dalia Schaechter was mesmerizing as the monstrous Kabanicha, the mother-in-law.

Zsolt Hamar, the company’s music director since 2012, pulled the orchestra through the initial mire of the overture into a warm and lucid reading of the score, though certain repeated rhythmic motifs never sounded clean.

Janáček’s operas are still less well known than they should be, which probably explains initially slow ticket sales. Katja Kabanova dates from 1921, yet the music sounds fresh, modern, and original nearly a century later. Based on this production, I wouldn’t hesitate to visit the theater again.

The final performance of Katja Kabanova is Feb. 20. For ticket information, click here.

Susan Brodie writes about music, the arts, and life from New York City and Paris. Follow her at @Susan Brodie (Twitter) and Toi Toi Toi!

The village takes shelter from the storm.
Taking shelter from the storm. Matthias Schaller designed the set for Matthew Wild’s production.