In case you're lulled into false hopefulness by the overture to Janáček's Kát’a Kabanová, the set at Spoleto Festival USA's production provides a stark reality check. The overture gives us a sense of where we are. Think Má vlast - full of lovely, evocative passages and Eastern European traditional melodies. While these melodies do not foreshadow Kát’a's undoing, the cultural and religious traditions that underlie them do.

Betsy Horne (Kát’a) and Rolando Sanz (Boris) © Julia Lynn
Betsy Horne (Kát’a) and Rolando Sanz (Boris)
© Julia Lynn

In Kát’a Kabanová, Kát’a ( Betsy Horne) joins the ranks of literary women who share a fate of dishonor, à la Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. Kát’a does it faster than the others and with less psychological complexity, coming in at about the two hour mark. Granted, she was well on her way before we came to know her. The storyline admittedly has holes, but there's no arguing with the music. When it is well-sung, as this was, we're swept right along through the storm with Kát’a.

In Spoleto USA's production by Garry Hynes, the set is a long, low box. When the back wall is raised, it reveals a sliver of sky over the Volga River. When the back is closed it is more like a cell, with nothing but a large cross to break up the grey expanse. 

In a long and complicated introduction, we meet the scientist Vanya (Alex Richardson), his neighbor Dikoi (Jan Opalach) and Dikoi's nephew Boris (Rolando Sanz). Vanya is delightful, Dikoi is odious and Boris is in love with Kát’a.

Kát’a is married to Tichon and, while she may love him as much as she says she does, she is pushed to the brink by her mother-in-law, Kabanicha (Jennifer Roderer), and has fallen for Boris from afar. We come to understand how fragile and already somewhat unhinged Kát’a is as she recounts moments of religious ecstasy to her foster sister, Varvara (Megan Marino). The only time Kát’a is comforted, she tells Varvara, is at night when she hears (imagines) her love singing to her. This love, of course, is not Tichon but Boris. It is here that Horne brings Kát’a to life. Her crystal voice hints at the character's pure heart, even as we watch her deteriorate. 

At Kabanicha's command, Tichon must leave town for a number of days. Fearing fate, Kát’a begs Tichon to make her swear that she will not so much as look at another man in his absence. Tichon sees no need for such an oath, but Kabanicha bullies him into extracting it anyway.

Rolando Sanz (Boris) and Betsy Horne (Kát’a) © Julia Lynn
Rolando Sanz (Boris) and Betsy Horne (Kát’a)
© Julia Lynn

"Make me swear an oath" in the first act is as good as a rifle hanging on the wall. Things progress quickly with Boris, enabled by Marino's bright and unfettered Varvara, who has been carrying on with Vanya. In the secrecy of the garden, Boris and Kát’a find love. Is inevitable dishonor worth these few moments of happiness? They may be the only ones she has. Or, they may be the vehicle to the fate she has crafted for herself. For all practical purposes, Boris is one of her hallucinated angels. It's the idea of him that tempts her - a reason to unlock the garden gate and defy the powers that hold her prisoner.

In the beginning of Act III (ten days later) there is a beautifully staged moment where the men of the town stand in doorways under their umbrellas during a thunderstorm. "We need lightning conductors," Vanya says to Dikoi. Dikoi rejects him as a charlatan for believing in such things. Storms are sent as punishment from God. How dare we attempt to divert that punishment?

Varvara arrives to warn Boris that Tichon has come home a day early and Kát’a is a wreck. Kát’a has spent the last several nights with Boris, and Varvara fears she may well admit this sin to Tichon... which she does, in front of everyone who's gathered out of the rain. They turn and leave her as a row of doors closes simultaneously, effectively cutting her off from any support she may have had.

Alone, Kát’a both hopes for death and refuses it. How can she continue to punish herself for her sin if she does not go on living? (To be fair, life with Kabanicha seems like it would have been punishment enough.)

A search party is dispatched to find Kát’a, among them Varvara and Vanya. They decide to leave for Moscow, where they will start a new life together. Unlike Kát’a, Vanya and Varvara need no one’s permission to live as they wish.

When Boris finds Kát’a, she apologizes for shaming him with her admission and asks what he will do. Unlike her, he can move somewhere else and everything will blow over. For a fleeting moment, she thinks of going with him, but knows this is impossible. When the two part, it is steeped in apology, not heartbreak. 

In the end, Kabanicha gets her wish: she has her son all to herself, alone and likely broken. She thanks the townspeople for their help, and it is clear she does not mean their help in trying to find and save Kát’a.

At this point, we realize the set is a coffin, and Kát’a's been in it all along.