It was a depressing evening _ and a very enjoyable one.
"Katya Kabanova" is no "Marriage of Figaro." From the first muffled thud of the kettle drum at the Vienna State Opera to its last powerful chords, Leos Janacek's opera depicts a life so sad that the heroine's suicide is the ultimate moment of release.
The story line is morbid _ a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage has a brief affair and then kills herself. The music tears at the emotions _ waves of sound break on each other in an expressionistic spectrum of dark tones that build on the desperation of Katya's wasted life being played out on stage.
Because this opera is so morbid, any performance has to be very good to succeed. Audiences caught up in intense emotions will not tolerate the distraction of depression overload caused by sloppy staging, singing or conducting.
So, Friday's new production at the Vienna State Opera was enjoyable in its hopelessness.
Conductor Franz Welser-Moest, who has described the score of Katya Kabanova as "turbulent waters" full of "very many cliffs," navigated admirably through the musical torrents. That's not easy in a work where one chord oftens seems internally torn as it expresses the conflicting emotions of as many as three singers on stage.
On stage, Janice Watson was heartbreakingly authentic as Katya, with plenty of the range and volume that this opera calls for. Klaus Florian Vogt kept pace as Boris, powering up his delivery to Wagnerian strength as required.
Deborah Polanski was a wonderful Kabanicha, the uber mother-in-law whose oppressive domination of Katya _ and suppressed sexual desire for her own son _ drives Katya first to adultery and then to suicide. Her look of triumph as she bends over Katya's dead body to slip the wedding ring off her finger and on to her own is one of the many highlights of the less than two-hour performance.
Also good: Wolfgang Bankl as Dikoj, Boris' abusive uncle and Kabanicha's secret lover; Marian Talaba as Tichon, Katya's husband; Stephanie Houtzeel as Vavara, Kabanicha's daughter and Norbert Ernst as Kudrjas, her lover.
Director Andre Engel and his team move the action from a small Russian village of the last century to Little Odessa _ the Russian enclave of New York City in the 1940s and 1950s. The concept works by substituting the closeness of an ethnic ghetto for the isolation of a village, both metaphors for prisons that Katya tries in vain to escape.
Depressing? Yes. Enjoyable? Totally.
George Jahn can be reached at http://twitter.com/georgejahn