Leos Janacek has been recognized as major opera composer of the 20th century. Recognition has not translated in numerous productions but if you try hard enough you will find most of his operas produced now and then around the world. All you need is lots of time and money.
Toronto is not exactly a hub for productions of Janacek’s operas (good luck finding one) but Voicebox: Opera in Concert has stepped into the breach with a concert production of Katya Kabanova. The opera premiered in 1921 in Czechoslovakia and (if you must know) was not touched by the Canadian Opera Company until 1994.
Voicebox: Opera in Concert produces ignored or infrequently produced operas in the Jane Mallett Theatre of the St. Lawrence Centre. Let’s just say not the ideal venue for opera. One feels that General Director Guillermo Silva-Marin and Voicebox have so many obstacles militating against them that only the attitude of damn the torpedoes propels them to go ahead. If you want another metaphor, think of a boxer going into the ring with one hand tied behind his back.
There was no orchestra, no set and none of the paraphernalia that give a staged production the trappings and trimmings for a full-blooded performance.
The one and only performance on December 1, 2019 was creditable and worthy. The score was played on the piano by Jo Greenaway who was also the music director. The opera was sung in English in Norman Tucker’s translation with projected English surtitles.
Soprano Lynn Isnar sang the tough role of Katya. She is a woman in a loveless marriage with an overbearing and thoroughly bitchy mother-in-law. Katya yearns for love and her good sense is overpowered by her attraction to Boris. Katya goes from longing, to capitulation, to moments of bliss. She confesses her affair to her husband and goes through a mental deterioration. That is a tough role that must be done with minimal interaction with the other characters and no orchestral support (piano accompaniment is not the same). Isnar does a good job despite the handicaps.
Mezzo-soprano Emiliya Boteva is fine as Kabanicha, the oppressive, man-eating mother of Katya’s husband Tichon (Michael Barrett). She wants her son to love her more than his wife. Boteva spikes her high notes upward as if stabbing someone and her Bulgarian accent adds to her malevolence.
Tenor Cian Horrobin sings a commendable Boris, Katya’s illicit lover. He is oppressed and insulted by his Uncle Dikoj (imposing-voiced Handaya Rusli). Boris and Katya will not do well but Vanya (fine-toned tenor Edward Larocque) and Varvara (lively Stephanie O’Leary) make up a contrasting happy couple.
Singing a translation from Czech to English has its own issues. All the English words do not fit the notes for which the composer wrote the music. At times there are more syllables in English than the music could accommodate resulting in awkward syncopation.
Silva-Marin is the man who keeps the Toronto Operetta Theatre alive and one can give only credit to his unfailing persistence in providing the city with rare cultural entertainment.
The next production of Voicebox will be Kamouraska by Charles M. Wilson on Sunday, February 16, 2020. One performance only.
If you are interested in the sad production history of Katya Kabanova (and who isn’t) consider these dates. It reached England in 1951 at Sadler’s Wells and Glyndebourne in 1989. The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden did not produce it until 1994. New York’s Metropolitan Opera got around to producing it in 1991 and will use the same production by the late Jonathan Miller in May 2020. The Canadian Opera Company got it in 1994.
That’s in the past. There have been many more productions in the 21st century. Just look for them.
Katya Kabanova by Leos Janacek was performed once on December 1, 2019 at the Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. www.operainconcert.com/
James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press