Russian-American soprano Dina Kuznetsova on Kátya Kabanová

by Russell Baillie / 13 September, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - Dina Theatre

Soprano Dina Kuznetsova. Photo/Dario Acosta

A tortured heroine, a nasty mother-in-law and 50s America add up to an operatic feast.

Russian-American soprano Dina Kuznetsova has sung the title role in Kátya Kabanová before. But reprising the tortured heroine in NZ Opera’s production of Czech composer Leoš Janáček’s 1921 work will be different. And not just because it’s her first time here.

The opera was adapted from Alexander Ostrovsky’s 1859 play The Storm about Kátya, a woman in a Russian village trying to escape her loveless marriage by having a fling with a besotted neighbour.

But the NZ Opera production switches continents and centuries, setting it in the US in the Eisenhower era. Director Patrick Nolan took his inspiration for the period shift from the 1950s high-emotion, high-colour melodramas of director Douglas Sirk. Australian Nolan debuted his Sirk homage, with its aptly Pacific Northwest scenery, at Seattle Opera earlier this year.

The white picket fences and 1950s frocks, though, are new to Kuznetsova as she joins a NZ Opera cast that includes veteran mezzo-soprano Margaret Medlyn as Kátya’s hateful, domineering mother-in-law, Kabanicha.

But the music of Janáček remains, sounding unlike most Western European opera, distinguished by its Czech libretto, its dialogue-like delivery and the tunes flavoured by the Moravian folk music that was a perennial influence.

How are Janáček’s melodies to sing in this?

For anybody who watched the modern version of Sherlock, the answer to this question came to me as a line from the show. There’s this moment when Sherlock drinks a cup of tea with an eyeball in it. John [Watson] asks him, “How is it?”, and Sherlock answers, “Surprisingly okay.”

The melodies are great. Quite often, they are actually gloriously singable and beautiful, and when they’re not, it’s because there’s dramatic action going on.

The opera is adapted from a Russian play. It’s by a Czech composer who was heavily influenced by Russia. This production is set in the US. You were born in Russia, but live in the US. Does all of that make this a particularly good fit?

Well, it certainly blows my mind when I think about it. Let’s just say I’m glad I’m familiar with US culture in the 1950s, so I can easily relate to the time transplant.

What does setting the opera in the 1950s bring?

What it adds is driving home how little has changed in human relationships and in the power of tradition and convention over a century, and over thousands of miles. Janáček’s music, too, has such a modern feel to it that I can honestly say I enjoy the new setting. In a way, it is unnerving how easy it is to imagine the suggested new time and place. And it is thought-provoking.

Kátya isn’t the happiest of characters. Does playing her take an emotional toll?

Kátya really gets under my skin. But I don’t think it’s only misery that takes an emotional toll. In some ways, misery is easier to interpret and more straightforward than ambiguity, uncertainty, divided loyalties or longing. Kátya has so many conflicting emotions packed into the opera – it is definitely draining. But the same thing is what is rewarding as well. Opera’s not famous for being even-keeled.

Considering Kátya’s relationship with Kabanicha, should people take their own mothers-in-law along?

For sure. Janáček loved his strong women in strong positions. Kabanicha is epic. For the record, my mother-in-law is nothing like my operatic one.

Kátya Kabanová, Aotea Centre, Auckland, September 16-23; St James, Wellington, October 7-14.

This article was first published in the September 16, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

The Free Man – movie review
80303 2017-09-22 00:00:00Z Movies

The Free Man – movie review

by Russell Baillie

A Kiwi documentary looks at what makes extreme athletes want to take the plunge.

Read more
Where on TV to watch the election results come in
80312 2017-09-22 00:00:00Z Television

Where on TV to watch the election results come in

by Fiona Rae

As the race for the Beehive hots up, TV and radio will have full election-night coverage.

Read more
New study suggests carbohydrates are worse than fats. Do we need to panic?
80307 2017-09-22 00:00:00Z Nutrition

New study suggests carbohydrates are worse than fa…

by Jennifer Bowden

The average Kiwi already eats a low-carb diet, so no, there’s no need to panic.

Read more
A pop-up design market, Diwali and more great Auckland events coming up
80333 2017-09-21 11:46:56Z What's on

A pop-up design market, Diwali and more great Auck…

by India Hendrikse

Your guide to what's on now and later in Auckland

Read more
Leaky homes: 'If you can't afford to pay for it, then tough luck'
80321 2017-09-21 09:46:28Z Property

Leaky homes: 'If you can't afford to pay for it, t…

by Phil Pennington

Leaky home owners are struggling with escalating repair costs that are adding hundreds of thousands of dollars to their debt.

Read more
Ministry of Social Development staff used false names, fearing client attacks
80315 2017-09-21 08:55:49Z Social issues

Ministry of Social Development staff used false na…

by Edward Gay

Ministry of Social Development staff have used false names on legal documents because they say they fear attacks by volatile clients.

Read more
How we vote: talking politics with parents
80249 2017-09-21 00:00:00Z Politics

How we vote: talking politics with parents

by Paperboy

How our parents might influence our political leanings: Five writers explore their parents' voting habits ahead of the election.

Read more
Voluntourism: When charity does more harm than good
80318 2017-09-21 00:00:00Z Social issues

Voluntourism: When charity does more harm than goo…

by The Listener

Some of the world’s poorest children are taken from their families and used as bait for the booming business of feel-good “voluntourism”.

Read more