Beautiful voices, stirring emotions, and fabulous Boston Lyric Opera orchestration, under the baton of conductor David Angus, dominate Boston Lyric Opera’s one-act, 100-minute opera, “Katya Kabanova”. Boston theatergoers are treated to the opera company’s first, five-performance run of Czech composer Leos Janacek’s tragic tale of a sad, tormented, emotionally delicate young wife, her weak husband, her domineering, cruel mother-in-law, and her one attempt at happiness- her dalliance with a lover.
This version was originally conceived by stage director Tim Albery for Opera North (U.K.) Production and is sung in Norman Tucker’s English translation, aided by two upper-level monitors on both sides of the stage. Janacek wrote “Katya Kabanova” in 1919-21, based on A.N. Ostrovsky’s play, “The Storm”. He dedicated several of his operas and fashioned his heroine, Katya, after the beautiful Kamila Stosslova, a much younger, married woman, whom he admired and fantasized about. She didn’t share his ardor.
The opera has been popularly performed internationally, and is enthusiastically received here. There are only five performances, so opera lovers must buy tickets quickly to catch one of the final three this week.
Set in Russia, designer Hildegard Bechtler emphasizes the region’s stark, depressing village, along the banks of the Volga River. Her large background panels are varying shades of dark green, representing the flora and dismal interior trappings of the Kabanova small-town village home. Her costumes are primarily the inhabitants’ drab, basic black.
Janacek’s tale is typical of tragic operas. Peter Mumford’s lighting and the orchestra’s storm and emotion effects intensify the dramatic tone.
We meet beautiful young Katya, who is unhappy in her marriage to matriarch-dominated Tichon Kabanov (wonderful tenor Alan Schneider). Tichon loves Katya, but weakly buckles under his cruel mother, Kabanicha’s, demands. Soprano Elizabeth Byrne is deliciously mean and domineering as Kabanicha, her voice laced with jealousy and anger, She carries her role out to the nth degree, scowling at us through her final bows.
To make her daughter-in-law’s life more wretched, Kabanicha sends Tichon on a business trip and refuses to let Katya accompany him, despite Katya’s desperate pleas. Katya secretly yearns for Boris Grigoryevich, (tenor Raymond Very), who is madly in love with her. She begs Tichon to make her pledge her faithfulness to him while he’s gone, which he considers unnecessary, until Kabanicha insists he force Katya to openly pledge her loyalty to him - and to her - during his absence.
Cuban-American soprano Elaine Alvarez’s voice soars, and her acting is heart-rending in the title role. Her sole friend is Tichon’s suppressed foster sister, Varvara (mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy), who has found her own secret route to happiness with handsome Vanya Kudrjasch (tenor Omar Najmi). While Varvara aids Katya in achieving happiness with lover, Boris, Vanya initially tries to discourage Boris, who is also depressed, under the cruel yoke of his rich uncle Dikoy (bass-baritone James Demler). Alvarez’ voice blends harmoniously with Very’s, but their love trysts lack intense ardor, a sharp contrast to Varvara and Vanya’s delightful, romantic romps.
As a storm builds, so does Katya’s conscience-ridden torment. She’s haunted again by invisible voices. Filled with hopelessness, Katya confesses her adultery publicly, sees Boris for a last embrace - his uncle is sending him far away - and drowns herself.
Theatergoers must watch carefully to catch subtle, surprising interactions. The only flaws in this production occur during set changes, as black-out pauses are announced on the monitors. Unannounced pauses are sometimes accented by lovely musical interludes, but the audience is still left in the dark. Also, a few simplistic translations created ripples of inappropriate laughter during serious scenes.
Regardless, theatergoers’ enthusiastic, prolonged applause evaporate the opera’s gloom.
BOX INFO: Boston Lyric Opera presents its first production of Leos Janacek’s one-act, 100-minute opera, “Katya Kabanova,” music by Leos Janacek, libretto by Vincenc Cervinka, March 18,20, at 7:30 p.m., March 22, at 3 p.m., at Boston’s Citi Performing Arts Center Shubert Theatre, 265 Tremont St., Boston. Check for related events. Call 617-542-6772, visit email@example.com, blo.org; single tickets, visit blo.org/buy-tickets or call 866-348-9738.