Today, when simultaneous translations are almost universally available, there is still a compelling reason to allow opera performances to be sung in a different idiom than the original one: singers feel more secure and spend less time with language coaches. It’s a strong argument especially in the case of less experienced artists, such as the Juilliard students, interpreting Leoš Janáček’s Káťa Kabanová. But, justifiable or not, it’s actually a pity to listen to Janáček’s operas in any other language than Czech. The composer had a particularly strong interest in the interaction between music and language and, in particular, concerning the musical aspects of folk speech. He obstinately attempted to express in music a correlation between certain spoken intonations and a character’s psychological state.

Miles Mykkanen (Tichon) and Felicia Moore (Kát'a) © Hiroyuki Ito
Miles Mykkanen (Tichon) and Felicia Moore (Kát'a)
© Hiroyuki Ito

Janáček’s operas are so rarely staged, that we should be grateful for any chance to attend a performance featuring one of them. And this Káťa Kabanová offered by the Juillard’s School students was far from an ordinary one. The Juilliard Orchestra, under the baton of Anne Manson sounded particularly fine. Besides flawlessly interpreting a difficult score, the young musicians conveyed the great originality of Janáček’s musical style, the restlessness, the shifting harmonies, the sublimated Moravian folkloric elements. Manson successfully brought to live the combination of lyricism and roughness that makes this music so unique. She sculpted with great care the typical unruly Janáček musical phrases from the repetitive, fleeting motifs that the composer named sčasovka. If the orchestra produced a truly “authentic” sound, the ensemble of vocal soloists was less successful. Possibly due to their use of English, the syncopations, the rhythmic irregularities were insufficiently accentuated. At times, they sounded like characters from Peter Grimes.

As Káťa, the woman trapped in an unhappy marriage who falls in love and can’t cope with the consequences of her actions, soprano Felicia Moore had great presence and displayed a powerful and flexible voice. Minus a few shrill notes in her upper register, she conquered with ease the difficulties of the score. The anguish, the shame, the longing for death, were not necessarily prominent in her portrayal of Káťa, but experience and time will help her characterize complex personae in the future. Moore’s interpretation announces a talent to be followed closely.

Sara Couden (Kabanicha) and Akex Rosen (Dikój) © Hiroyuki Ito
Sara Couden (Kabanicha) and Akex Rosen (Dikój)
© Hiroyuki Ito

As fit for a performance that should allow multiple student soloists to shine, Janáček’s libretto, based on the 19th-century play by Alexander Ostrovsky, features a multitude of secondary characters. The free-spirited Varvara, Káťa’s confidante, was interpreted by mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey, whose lovely, luminous voice will definitely allow her to tackle meatier roles down the road. The duets with her lover Kudrjáš, a role sung with lyrical refinement by tenor Sam Levine, provided a few moments of relief from the bleak overall atmosphere. Káť'a is not the only character who appears unable to escape oppressive circumstances. Tichon, her weak and abusive husband, is tragically obedient to his dominating mother and incapable of protecting his wife. Tenor Miles Mykkanen portrayed his vacillations and frustrations with flair. The third tenor of the evening, Gérard Schneider, featured as Boris Grigorjevič, Katja’s love interest, modulated his voice well but he didn't bring a lot of individuality and depth to a quite despicable character. His uncle, Dikój, was the rich-voiced bass Alex Rosen, infusing the merchant with unintended charm. As Kabanichka, the villainess mother-in-law, a role that has the potential to steal any Kát'a Kabanová performance, mezzo Sara Couden sang with solid, dusky voice, but brought this false model of moral rectitude too close to the edge of caricature.

Samantha Hankey (Varvara) and Sam Levine (Kudrjaš) © Hiroyuki Ito
Samantha Hankey (Varvara) and Sam Levine (Kudrjaš)
© Hiroyuki Ito

Stephen Wadsworth tried to combine in his mis-en-scéne, 19th-century realism with 20th-century post-Freudian psychology. Charlie Corcoran's set depicted a sparsely furnished, dark, repressive interior. On the side, elements of bucolic surroundings: birch trees, a little gate, hints of leaves' shadows on the back wall. At some point, Kát'a mentions that she visualizes herself rising to Heaven to watch the angels. Wadsworth “translated” the image quite literally, lifting the heroine in her huge bed on top of the abandoned chapel where townspeople take refuge from a thunderstorm. Later on, the empty bed is shown ridiculously dangling in the air. The opera ends with Tichon pushing his mother away from the body of the drowned Kát'a. Abruptly, he embraces her, a gratuitous Oedipal complex fulfillment.

Regardless of any objections to the staging, the main goal of these performances – exposing a new generation of Juilliard Opera students to the marvels of Janáček's music and to the challenges one faces interpreting it – was fully attained.