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A grim drama up close

The Jane Mallett Theatre
12/01/2019 -  
Leos Janácek: Katya Kabanová
Lynn Isnar (Katya Kabanová), Emiliya Boteva (Kabanicha), Cian Horrobin (Boris), Michael Barrett (Tichon), Stephanie O’Leary (Varvara), Edward Larocque (Ványa), Handaya Rusli (Dikój), Katherine Lynn Barr (Glasa), Gabrielle French (Feklusa), Taylor Gibbs (Kuligin)
The Voicebox Opera in Concert Chorus, Robert Cooper (director), Jo Greenaway (music director and pianist)
Guillermo Silva-Marin (dramatic advisor and lighting designer)

L. Isnar (© Kevin Sarasom)

This was quite a venturesome leap for Toronto’s Opera in Concert (now in its 44th year): its first performance of a work by Leos Janácek.

It was sung in English in the translation by Norman Tucker (with revisions by Rodney Blumer and Henriette Bredin) when, as manager of what was then Sadler’s Wells Opera, he was instrumental in introducing Janácek under the baton of Charles Mackerras in 1951. Janácek is noted for his adroit musical setting of the Czech language and I expected there would be awkward moments, such as erratic emphases, but it all flowed well. The fact that the libretto is not poetic, but everyday speech taken from a realistic play, must have made translating easier.

Janácek is also noted for his distinctive orchestration; we lost some of this with the piano reduction, but in the intimate space (500 seats) of the Jane Mallett Theatre, Jo Greenaway achieved a persuasive ambiance heightening the terse drama. And once again the performers are off book and act in the semi-staged manner the company has brought to a high degree of effectiveness.

The plot: Katya is married to Tichon, an affluent young man who is dominated by his mother, the widow Kabanicha. Tichon has a drinking habit. Kabanicha has a foster-daughter, Varvara, who has a suitor, Ványa, a schoolteacher. Tichon is obliged to travel on business and, urged on by the lighthearted Varvara, Katya succumbs to allure of one Boris, another unhappy young man under the thumb of a domineering uncle, Dikój. All this occurs in a small town whose inhabitants (as in small towns everywhere) cannot be unaware of such scandalous goings on. It ends unhappily.

As for the performers, once again Guillermo Silva-Marin has chosen singers who are well-suited to their roles. Lynn Isnar has a sparkling lyric voice that captures Katya’s hopes, doubts, and fears, especially in a challenging arioso scene, the closest thing to an aria in the work. The second most important role is that of the domineering mother-in-law, Kabanicha, and it’s a role that can end up dominating the whole work or, in the wrong hands, misfire and arouse laughter as she is such an all-out termagant. Emiliya Boteva has the force and focus to put the rather archaic character across. (The source material, a play The Storm by Alexander Ostrovsky dates from 1859 and it understandably has features that show its age.)

There are three tenors in the cast, and the one with the most singing by far is Ványa, the carefree schoolteacher, who seems to have wandered in from a bucolic operetta. He even has a strophic folkish number. Edward Larocque has a youthful voice and presence that suits the role admirably. In contrast, the two conflicted tenors, Tichon and Boris, are destined to have neither a good time dramatically or vocally in the work, but both Michael Barrett (Tichon, the husband) and Cian Horrobin (Boris, the lover) make the most of ungrateful roles.

Handaya Rusli makes a vivid impression as Boris’s ill-tempered uncle, Dikój, and Stephanie O’Leary makes the most of the not-so-innocent, manipulative Varvara. The Voicebox Chorus are creepily effective as the eavesdropping villagers.

Katya Kabanová was produced at least one other time in Toronto, by the Canadian Opera Company back in 1994, with Robert Carsen directing and Richard Bradshaw conducting. They did it well and it’s no surprise that my clearest memory is of Kabanicha (Felicity Palmer). This single performance had the bad luck of occurring on a miserable icy day that kept much of the audience from attending, which was unfortunate as Voicebox once again did justice to a work the fully deserves more exposure.

Michael Johnson



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