Review: Seattle Opera Psychodrama – Melody Moore’s Magnificent Katya Kabanova, February 25, 2017

Australian director Patrick Nolan has created a revelatory new production of Janacek’s “Katya Kabanova” – an opera about the toxic relationship between a widow and her daughter-in-law that ends in the latter’s suicide.

[Below: Melody Moore as Katya in Patrick Nolan’s Seattle Opera production of Janacek’s “Katya Kabanova”; edited image, based on a Philip Newton photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Nolan shifted the time and place from a 19th century Russian village to an American town in the early 1950s. The time shift focuses the opera on the impact that the traditions in which Kabanicha and Katya were raised has on the psychological makeup of each character, as cultural and religious norms disintegrate around them.

Melody Moore’s Katya

Janacek’s story became the vehicle for a powerful performance by Tennessee soprano Melody Moore.

Moore believably portrays the good-hearted Katya, who cannot conform to her mother-in-law Kabinicha’s definition of wifely duty, but is deeply disturbed by her own extramarital sexual attraction, strongly believing that she must atone for the commission of mortal sin.

Moore’s large voice was lyrically beautiful in the opera’s lushly melodic romantic scenes, and dramatically intense in Katya’s fatal final scene at river’s edge.

[Below: Melody Moore as Katya Kabanova; edited image, based on a Philip Newton photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

I have reported on Melody Moore’s succession of challenging dramatic roles, including Senta ]Ryan McKinny, Melody Moore, Jay Hunter Morris Soar in “Flying Dutchman” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 18, 2013] and Lady Macbeth [Review: Gripping Portraits by Eric Owens, Melody Moore in Anne Bogart’s Staging of Verdi’s “Macbeth” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 17, 2015]. See also my interview with her at Rising Stars: An Interview with Melody Moore.

Victoria Livengood’s Kabinicha and Nicky Spence’s Tichon

North Carolina Mezzo-soprano Victoria Livengood gave a bravura performance as Katya’s mother-in-law, the authoritarian Kabinicha, a role that for many opera-goers is one of the great villainesses of opera.

[Below: As matriarch of the Kabanov household, Kabinicha (Victoria Livengood, left) is determined that her son Tichon (Nicky Spence, right) will follow her every instruction; edited image, based on a Philip Newton photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Yet, Livengood’s Kabinicha proved a realistic portrait of a family matriarch, the most senior woman in a household, whose longevity has empowered her as the guardian of the family’s morals, finances and reputation. One can imagine Kabinicha as a young wife, following the often harsh instructions of the matriarch of that time, in a cycle that goes back for countless generations.

I have seen Livengood in character roles of operas by composers as diverse as Verdi, Previn and Corigliano [see Erin Wall, Mark Delavan Are Superb in Elegant New Production of “Arabella” – Santa Fe Opera, August 1, 2012], but Kabinicha is a meaty role that provides Livengood the opportunity to demonstrate her expansive range of vocal and dramatic skills.

Scottish tenor Nicky Spence brilliantly performed the role of Kabinicha’s son, the weak, tortured Tichon.

Joseph Dennis’ Boris

California Tenor Joseph Dennis was convincing in the role of Boris, whose interest in a sexual liaison with the married Katya does not extend to the idea of a long-term relationship with her.

[Below: Boris (Joseph Dennis, left) finally gets an opportunity to be alone with Katya (Melody Moore, right); edited image, based on a Philip Newton photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Like Steva in Janacek’s “Jenufa”, who leaves the woman he seduces to deal with the affair’s disastrous consequences without him, Boris disappears when he is needed most.

My previous review of Joseph Dennis was of his last minute assumption for the American premiere and all following performances of the title role of Huang Ruo’s opera “Doctor Sun Yat-Sen” at the Santa Opera, which was performed in Mandarin [see Review: Santa Fe Opera Shows its Mettle in Mounting Huang Ruo’s “Doctor Sun Yat-Sen” – July 30, 2014]. (Corinne Winters, who sings Katya Kabanova in the alternate cast in this Seattle Opera run, sang the role of Yat-Sen’s wife, Ching-Ling.)

Maya Lahyani’s Varvara, Joshua Kohl’s Kudrjas and other Cast Members

The “Katya”  comprimario roles were well-cast throughout, led by the Maya Lahyani as Kabanicha’s free-spirited daughter Varvara and Pennsylvania tenor Joshua Kohl as her intellectual boyfriend Kudrjas.

Kohl was an appealing Kudrjas, who pursues Varvara while helping create an erotic mood for Katya’s fateful meetings with Boris. Neither Kudrjas nor Varvara have sympathy for either Kabinicha’s old ways nor Katya’s belief in the need for punishment for mortal sin.

Earlier this decade, Israeli mezzo-soprano Maya Lahyani, then an Adler Fellow in San Francisco Opera’s Young Artists program, was impressive in the smaller roles she sang then.

As Varvara, Lahyani demonstrates that she possesses the vocal and dramatic abilities for much larger assignments.

[Below: Katya (Melody Moore, left) is encouraged by her sister-in-law Varvara (Maya Lahyani, right) to pursue her romantic inclinations; edited image, based on a Jacob Lucas photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Others in the cast were New York bass Stefan Szkafarowsky as Dikoj, Idaho soprano Jennifer Cross as Glasha, Georgia baritone Joseph Lattanzi as Kuligin and Washington mezzo-soprano Susan Salas as Feklusha.

The musical performance and staging

Maestro Oliver von Dohnanyi conducted the Seattle Opera orchestra with an obvious high regard for the melodic sweep of Janacek’s score. (He is a distant cousin of Christoph von Dohnanyi, one of the great 20th century conductors of Janacek’s operas.)

Because there are alternate principal artists in the roles of Katya and Boris, and I am reviewing both casts, I will discuss Patrick Nolan’s direction and the brilliant Production, Lighting and Digital Designs of Australian designers Genevieve Blanchett and Mark Howett in detail in my second review [see Review: Corinne Winters’ Searing Performance as Seattle Opera’s Katya Kabanova, February 26, 2017.]


I recommend the opera, cast and production enthusiastically to the veteran operagoer, and to adventurous newcomers to opera.