Despite its usual repertoire being based firmly in the popular operatic classics, New Zealand Opera also has a proven track record with Czech opera, with a harrowing Jenůfa and a vocally splendid if dramatically problematic Bartered Bride enlivening recent seasons. Their final production for the 2017 season followed this tradition with Káťa Kabanová in a production borrowed from Seattle Opera. Premièred in 1921, this opera was dedicated by Janáček to the young Kamila Stösslová, with whom he was deeply in love (though it seems this love was unrequited). It is based on a 19th-century play by Russian dramatist Alexander Ostrovsky and sees the title character unhappy in her marriage to the merchant Tichon and bullied by his mother, the tyrannical Kabanicha. She finds temporary relief with a lover, Boris, but eventually her guilt at the betrayal proves to be overwhelming. It’s a compact work and this performance made every second of its two-hour duration absolutely riveting.

Dina Kuznetsova (Káťa) and Hayley Sugars (Varvara) © David Rowland
Dina Kuznetsova (Káťa) and Hayley Sugars (Varvara)
© David Rowland

Patrick Nolan’s production updates the events from 1860s Russia to what appears to be 1950s small-town America. There is something of a Pleasantville-like feeling to the pretty house and the neat picket fences though it soon become clear that the clean white window frames are more like prison bars for Káťa. Projections provided a view of expansive natural beauty in the middle of which the town sits, providing a vision of escape for Káťa and eventually the river into which she leaps. The direction was masterfully unobtrusive with full focus being given to the wide-eyed Káťa and her emotional journey through passion, distress and shame. Central to the production’s success was the mesmerising Dina Kuznetsova in the title role. She was spellbinding from the outset, with a subtle control of dynamics and phrasing in her musings to Varvara in Act One. As she became more and more tortured with guilt, the fragmented vocal lines became filled with a palpable anxiety and tension that seemed to lead inexorably towards her death. Vocally, she had no trouble with the high tessitura, riding Janáček's often expansive orchestration with no sign of effort. And what a gorgeous voice she has too: absolutely even from top to bottom and with a glowing radiance on high. The performance reached its climax in a devastating account of Káťa’s final scene against a stark black backdrop.

James Benjamin Rodgers (Kudrjaš) © David Rowland
James Benjamin Rodgers (Kudrjaš)
© David Rowland
I hope it comes across as complimentary when I say that Margaret Medlyn’s Kabanicha was one of the most unpleasant characters I’ve ever experienced on the operatic stage. Medlyn made the most of the dramatic opportunities afforded to the tough and haughty matriarch, bullying her daughter-in-law and son with equal harshness. A moment of softness in her short scene with Dikoj rounded out the character more than one would have thought possible. Long a stalwart of New Zealand Opera productions, Andrew Glover gave one of his best performances as the weak and indecisive Tichon, clearly struggling with but unable to break free from the iron will of his mother. Angus Wood brought a full-bodied, manly tenor voice to the role of Boris as well as an appropriate air of desperation. Finally, as the second couple Varvara and Kudrjas, Hayley Sugars and James Benjamin Rodgers brought some light-hearted relief with their fresh, youthful voices in their folksong-like duet.

Andrew Glover (Tichon) and Margaret Medlyn (Kabanchina) © David Rowland
Andrew Glover (Tichon) and Margaret Medlyn (Kabanchina)
© David Rowland

Music Director Wyn Davies also excelled himself in his gripping handling of Janáček’s score. He was particularly adept at bringing out the compassionate music the composer allotted to the accompaniment of the title character. But Davies never skimped on the drama either; the tension of Káťa’s confession infidelity was almost unbearable. The orchestra played superbly with particularly touching contributions from the wind and the strings, by turn dramatically astringent and lushly respondent in the love music. New Zealand Opera deserves to be feted for its continued advocacy of Czech opera despite the price it paid in empty seats on this Tuesday evening. This is a performance that every Auckland opera-lover should see – such a gripping, emotional night in the lyric theatre is rare on these shores indeed.

*****