Russian-American soprano Dina Kuznetsova on Kátya Kabanová

by Russell Baillie / 13 September, 2017
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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.

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