In Review > North America

Káťa Kabanová (5/24/14), Facing Goya (5/25/14)

CHARLESTON
Spoleto Festival USA

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Jennifer Roderer (Kabinicha) and Betsy Horne (Kat'a) in Garry Hynes's production of Káťa Kabanová at Spoleto Festival USA
Photography by Julia Lynn
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Betsy Horne (Kat'a) and Rolando Sanz (Boris)
Photography by Julia Lynn
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Soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird in Ong Keng Sen's production of Facing Goya
Photography by Julia Lynn

Spoleto Festival USA often seems to program operas with an unspoken connection, one that doesn't appear until you've sat through them. This year brought Leos Janáček's profoundly emotional Káťa Kabanová on May 24 and Michael Nyman's utterly cerebral Facing Goya on May 25.  (The third of this season's operas, which I did not review, was John Adams's El Niño.)  

The first made us look backward in sadness to a time almost 100 years ago; the other made us look forward in fear to some undefined future. Yet they met psychologically in a disturbing place, where suppression of individuality led to disaster. Káťa made the more immediate impact, because the story is easier to follow: the title character, ignored by her weakling of a husband and bullied by a controlling mother-in-law, rebels by loving an unreliable man and pays a terrible price. (Janáček, then a widower, wrote it four years after beginning his passionate, unrequited obsession with a younger married woman named Kamila Stösslová, so read into that what you will.)

People who didn't take to Goya, which was receiving its U.S. premiere in Charleston, found it aridly philosophic and/or simplistic in expressing ideas. Yet Nyman's music had a potent cumulative effect as it rolled over us for two hours, and Victoria Hardie's occasionally confusing libretto grappled with a significant social question.

Betsy Horne, an American soprano active principally in Germany, made her professional U.S. opera debut as Káťa. The presence of Horne, who agreed to take on the role in January of this year after another artist withdrew from the production, exemplified what's best about this festival — the sense of discovery audiences get when a little-known artist gives a triumphant performance, which often seems to happen here. Horne is a big-shouldered blonde whose presence made the narrow-minded people around her seem shrunken, not just emotionally but physically. Yet she had a vulnerability and innocence they lacked, and she fought metaphorically to make herself heard. Not literally, though: her strong, emotive voice rode out over the Spoleto Festival Orchestra, conducted vividly by Anne Manson.

Designer Matt Saunders trapped Káťa on a Sottile Theatre set with a lowered ceiling that appeared to press down on her: much of the time, Horne looked like Alice in Wonderland after drinking the potion that makes her too big for her world. The Volga River provided the only suggestion of color in the background, glimmering in gold and green and blue like a Monet painting seen by different lights. A series of sliding panels obscured it, separating Káťa from any hope of happiness.

Irish director Garry Hynes, no stranger to mother-daughter conflicts — she won a Tony Award for The Beauty Queen of Leenane — let Kabanicha (powerful Jennifer Roderer) hammer her daughter-in-law vocally. The feeble-willed men around both of them receded, and we knew that the would-be lover Boris (sung by an ardent Rolando Sanz) didn't have the strength to save Káťa from isolation and destruction. In Hynes' hands, the tragedy was more inevitable than ever.

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Museop Kim, Anne-Carolyn Bird, Suzanna Guzman, Aundi Marie Moore & Thomas Michael Allen in Facing Goya
Photography by Julia Lynn
 

Humanity needs saving, mostly from its worst impulses, in Goya. In this heavily symbolic opera, no character has a name: four of the five singers turn up in many guises, and the one who doesn't (the tender-voiced Suzanna Guzman) is known only as "art banker." The title character arrives in the second act, looking for a chocolate bar and a woman, to add a bit of personality to the abstract proceedings.

The art banker has acquired the skull of Spaniard Francisco Goya, which arouses the curiosity of scientists who want to extract DNA and locate a "talent gene." I assume Nyman and Hardie chose Goya (1746–1828) because he's the bridge between old masters and modernism. His genius, which led him to depict fantastic and often horrible scenes, was incomprehensible to peers but an inspiration to Picasso, Manet and others.

By inference, these scientists want to create a human race of uniform excellence. Laser-voiced tenor Thomas Michael Allen and soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird, who sometimes sang in a range high enough for bats to use for echolocation, put the case for the supermen. Warmer soprano Aundi Marie Moore and dignified baritone Museop Kim argued the value of diversity. Meanwhile, director Ong Keng Sen projected video behind the singers on the Dock Street Theatre stage, alternating between heavy-handed footage (Hitler addressing troops) and shots of performers from above that didn't illuminate the text.

This sounds like a didactic lesson about racial diversity, especially as Allen and Bird were white and their rebutters were African-American, Korean-American and Latina. But in the second act, when Goya appeared, the show got funnier and more down-to-Earth. Nyman, who's still best known for his score for Jane Campion's 1993 film The Piano, writes music that washes over us in broad waves, pulling us slowly into the cozy or chilly moods he builds. John Kennedy, the festival's expert at music by living composers, conducted with as much nuance as the piece allowed. spacer 

LAWRENCE TOPPMAN

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Current Issue: August 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 2