Saturday, December 12, 2009

Wait a Minute - Czech Opera?

Did you know that there's such a thing as Czech opera?  No?  I didn't either, until my latest adventure to the Lyric.  I'm sure my brain hadn't ruled Czech opera out as a possibility; it's one of many things that might possibly occur somewhere in the world, but when you think opera you generally think Italy - or Germany, if you prefer Wagner - and then France.  Not the Czech Republic.  And technically that's not even correct, for although this opera is Czech, it's not from the Czech Republic, because the Czech Republic didn't exist at the time.  (History buffs will know that it was part of the Austrian and, later, the Austro-Hungarian Empire for much of modern history.)

(If you're curious, the picture is the vestibule at the Lyric, which is lit in much warmer tones than this picture suggests.  And that guy whose head you see at the bottom of the picture?  He's a bartender - I got him in the photo by mistake.)

In any case, if you aren't familiar with Czech opera, you won't know which opera I went to see (unless you've already checked the Lyric's schedule while reading through this paragraph above, in which case I salute your ability to multitask, even if I am slightly peeved that you multitask on top of my blog).  It was Leoš Janáček's Káťa Kabanová (that's ley-ohsh yah-NA-check, if you're curious about all those diacriticals over the composer's name.  The opera title is sometimes transliterated as Katya Kabanova and is sometimes just referred to as Katya). 

Still doesn't ring a bell?  I forgive you, because I had never heard of it either.  (I won't spoil the story or bore you with details about the composer, but if you like you can read about Janáček here and a synopsis of the opera here.)  Suffice it to say that Janáček was born in Moravia in the middle of the 19th century and was heavily influenced, like many of his historical and geographic contemporaries, by folk music.  The Czechs consider him of equal stature with Bedřich Smetana (composer of the opera The Bartered Bride and the symphonic cycle Má vlast (My Fatherland)) and Antonín Dvořák (known in this country for the New World Symphony), but he is not very well-known in the States.  In my humble opinion, he deserves to be.  Let me explain why.

Upon learning that Janáček wrote Katya in this '20s, I was a bit worried.  My impression of music from the 1920s was dissonant, atonal, unpleasant, and obtrusively modern - not the sort of thing I would want to sit through for a few hours.  But I was also drawn by the fact that I had never heard of either the composer or the opera, so I bought a ticket and went.  And I was happily surprised.  As I read in the program notes (and mentioned above), Janáček was influenced by his contemporaries of the late 1800s, including the great Russian Romantic (as in the period of music history, not the amorous tendency), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.  Tchaikovsky, while definitely a departure from the Classical era, is most definitely not atonal, unpleasant, or modernist (he was also gay, but that's not relevant to this discussion).  Janáček's music is not unlike Tchaikovsky's, but with slightly more modern overtones and - because of the opera's subject - bleaker and harsher, well-suited to great rushes of emotion and the weight of enormous tragedy.  I liked it.

I promised not to give away the plot of Katya, and I won't, but I will say a little about it.  The title character is trapped in a marriage with Tichon, who is henpecked not by Katya, but by his mother Kabanicha, with whom he and his wife live.  The fourth member of this happy household is Varvara, a foundling adopted by Kabanicha who is just a bit younger that Katya.  Kabanicha is a domineering witch (figurative, not literal), and when Tichon leaves on business, Katya gets a chance at freedom, which she seizes with disastrous results.  For those of you interested in the technical side of this, Katya is a soprano, Kabanicha a contralto, Varvara a mezzo-soprano, and Tichon a tenor.  There are more characters and more voice parts (though the basses get a bit shortchanged), but to tell you who they are and why they're important would give away the story.

The music, as I've mentioned, was quite good, but what struck me the most, in a positive way, was the way this opera was staged.  In keeping with the idea of bleakness - the opera is set in a Russian village on the banks of the Volga - the vast expanse of stage was painted gray, and the entire rear wall was a film screen depicting the sky,  filled with clouds, which grew darker and more sinister as the opera progressed.  There were only two pieces of real set, Kabanicha's house and a ruined chapel.  Each stood in the middle of the stage during their respective scenes (never on stage together, of course), with the vast gray stage on each side and sweeping off to the horizon in back.  Kabanicha's house, cleverly, was cut in half and put on casters so it could be turned between scenes, so scenes outdoors would happen in front of Kabanicha's porch, and scenes inside the house would happen inside the house, which would be turned so we could see inside.  The ruined chapel, which we see in the penultimate scene of the opera, is appropriately cold and also gray.  In addition, all the supporting characters (not the six or seven named characters) were dressed in black, and even some of the named characters wore black or brown.  All in all the staging made a significant contribution to how I perceived the opera, and in this case, is worked very well.

I suppose now you're curious as to what happens in this opera that requires such bleakness, but it would be hard to retell - better to see it.  You won't be able to see it in Chicago, unfortunately - tonight was closing night.  Why not read the synopsis, and then add it to your "To See" list?

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