West Edge Music Director Jonathan Khuner places the powerful drama in Janácek’s opera Katya Kabanova in context.
Music Director, Jonathan Khuner
Just what is so undeniably compelling, even devastating, about Katya Kabanova? As a love story it doesn’t seem so unusual: a misfit housewife has an affair and pays the social penalty. Yet every second along this journey the people are so real, the stakes are so high, that we can’t help rooting for the transgressor and feeling desolate at the tragic ending. Some aspects of each character flash in exaggerated, even caricatured ways, yet they become all the more real for these improbabilities. To put it simply, the power of this (as of any great) opera emerges from its truthfulness and timelessness.
The Czech composer Leoš Janácek (1854-1928) had an uncanny knack for choosing opera subjects that would stimulate his creative juices to form stirring dramatic works. His totally idiosyncratic style mixes elements of folk melodies, orchestration, and harmonies drawn from a wide palette - - his own Slavic heritage, shades of the romantic 19th century, Richard Wagner’s inventions, and Claude Debussy’s more recent explorations. Janácek was definitely a composer of “new” music, with a distinctive fresh and challenging voice. His sounds are not modern in the sense of avant-garde or ugly, but, for example, in setting for voice he emphasizes irregular speech patterns far above conventional melody. Every measure is ad hoc and evocative, rather than formulaic or traditional.
At the time it was composed, 1920, Kát’a Kabanová (to give the authentic Czech spelling - - it should be pronounced exactly as in the normal English spelling, with a slight elongation of the first and last syllables of the title, and accents on the two “Ka” syllables - -) had a very fresh 20th-century sound and dramatic feel. It exploded with a huge success with the Czech audience at its 1921 premiere in Brno, and it immediately was taken up all over Europe. The poignancy of the story and the riveting pace of the drama have ensured it a permanent place in opera repertory over the world. This is quite remarkable, considering the very narrow ethnic focus of the play on which it is based.
The Russian playwright Alexander Ostrovsky (1823-1886) had used family life in a small rural Russian village to criticize the cruelty of his larger society. The intense realism of the scenes and the sharp etching of eccentric characters won his 1859 play The Thunderstorm a sensation at its first performance, as the reflection of unpleasant autocracy and unleashed libido (which Ostrovsky barely had managed to shepherd past Russian censors) enraged conservative theater critics. However, the emotions of the compelling love tragedy won over audiences nationwide and even internationally. Sixty years later Janácek could be sure that it would resonate with his (further west) Slavic audience as well. What we, still a century later on, in a completely different society, recognize as meaningful and present for us, is that same unyielding tension between the arbitrary forces of order in society and the irrepressible human urges of the subjugated individual. Part of the opera’s force undoubtedly lies in its indirect expression of Janácek’s own obsessive extramarital passions, which never reached actual fulfillment. But that’s another story, and this opera’s story overwhelms on its own.
The heroine, Katya, is superficially a simple spirit: uneducated, accepting of her condition, and deeply religious in a homely way. She expresses herself in naïve terms, and doesn’t probe where her feelings come from. But often she realizes there are recesses of her own mind that want to be expressed, and she’s frustrated that she can’t find the words. The one thing that she can identify is the terrifyingly strong sexual attraction she feels for a man who’s not her husband. In her universe even the thought is a damnable sin, so she becomes desperate to resolve this catastrophic inner conflict. I think the drama’s tragic essence lies less in Katya’s losing physical battle against society, and more in the impossibility of her achieving true clarity and acceptance of her own nature. She can only find a partial resolution in a hell-inspired thunderstorm-driven confession, and peaceful closure in an irreversible exit.
Meanwhile, the other characters are equally prisoners of their own personalities, which seem controlled like clockwork by the crude mechanisms of a rural, superstitious (faux-pious) culture teeming with social inequities and sustained by both greed and lust. There are rich merchants, lusty youths (of both sexes), domineering oldsters, suspicious townfolk, all of whom totally lack the radiant soulfulness of Katya. They don’t actually bear her any malice, but she upsets their order, and must bear the brunt of their negative qualities. Her mother-in-law, Kabanicha, seems to hate her unremittingly, but only because she feels Katya is interfering with her dominion over her son Tichon (Katya’s husband). For his part Tichon is unable to connect with Katya’s soul; that’s clearly what alienated her affections to begin with. Eventually he ends up able to beat her mercilessly without losing his feelings of love for her. All the other characters have similarly clear but warped viewpoints, and Janácek’s musical characterization unerringly underlines the maddeningly logical hypocrisy of their relationships.
Ostrovsky clearly was motivated principally by his anger at 19th century tsarist Russia. A revealing 1933 Soviet film of The Storm dwells on the evils of the capitalist village structure, transforming all the characters into puppets of bourgeois malaise.
Somehow this doesn’t completely weaken the personal tragedy of the play.
But Janácek stayed true to his own focus on the human element, and managed to lift the drama into a transcendent human epic, which West Edge will have the happy privilege of recreating for you.