Errant Avant

New versions of Leos Janácek's early 20th-century operas about Czech and Russian life provide a welcome change from the usual Italian warhorses. Houston Grand Opera's latest, Katya Kabanova, is Janácek's story of a Russian wife who is hemmed in by marriage and her mother-in-law.

Katya's dilemma lends insight into the plight of Russian women 100 years ago, but that message gets lost in director David Alden's loose, wrongheaded experimentation with set design, as evident in HGO's Friday opener at the Wortham Theater Center. Counterbalancing Alden's attempt at the avant-garde are Janácek's naturalistic folk rhythms and dissonant melodies interpreted by Israeli conductor Asher Fisch and the Houston Symphony. Janácek's plot is based on The Storm, a play by Alexander Ostrovsky, and concerns Katya's worry that her husband's ten-day absence for an errand ordered by his mother will tempt her to have an affair. What she dreads comes to pass. For the ten days, she commits adultery with Boris. When her husband, Tikhon, returns, she's so consumed with guilt that she confesses and throws herself into the Volga River.

Janácek's story touches on the plight of one wife. Its aims, however, aren't as lofty as Richard Wagner's pairing of doomed lovers in Tristan and Isolde. Lacking this mythical dimension, Janácek's characters are more down-to-earth, like those found in the plays of Anton Chekhov and Henrik Ibsen.

The first glimpse of Alden's bare, canted walls and an oddly raked stage are arresting, if also puzzling. Dim lighting and the absence of period furnishings -- or anything resembling brick and mortar -- scarcely provide a backdrop for the village of Kalinov. (In a radio interview, Alden hinted that audiences would see sets that are abstract, intended to bring out the tale's archetypal elements.) By contrast, Jon Morrell's simple bourgeois costumes give a much-needed sense of time and place.

As Katya, Catherine Malfitano's lyrical soprano undercuts the visual confusion. Despite being forced to sit on the floor a few times, she has an uncanny command of the abrupt tonal changes called for by Janácek's score. Her versatility in mood interpretation provides continuous diversion. Tenor Neil Rosenshein's rendering of Tikhon, Katya's weak, henpecked husband, is appropriately diffident, except during a key duet with Malfitano before he leaves town. Tenor Raymond Very comes across solidly as Boris, Katya's lover.

In the role of mother-in-law Kabanicha, mezzo-soprano Katherine Ciesinski gives a healthy dose of realism to the tale. Her voice proves stern and matches her shrewish nature. She may carry the tyrant caricature a little too far in the end, though; her voice drips with sarcasm when she thanks her neighbors for rescuing Katya's corpse. To anyone who favors Janácek's strong female characters, Malfitano and Ciesinski offer plenty of satisfying musical moments.

Janácek wrote one of the most engaging minor roles for Kudrjas, Varvara's lover. Sung by tenor Gordon Gietz, the character offers a lively song-and-dance presence into a mostly sad tale. As Varvara, Kabanicha's adopted daughter, Zheng Cao's mezzo voice is extremely satisfying, but her occasional flitting about and too-girlish gestures seem a bit much. Except for his excessive groping of Kabanicha, bass singer József Gregor performs well as Dikoy, Boris's tyrannical uncle.

Alden's general guidance of the players within his spare sets seems to contradict, rather than enhance, the story's meaning. The action of the first two acts is played either outside of the one long wall (the only set) or inside it, to replicate the inside of the Kabanova house. In several scenes the singers occupy distant corners of the stage and are forced into slightly exaggerated gestures at unlikely moments. The immense separation and free gesturing clash with the atmosphere of imprisonment imposed by the tyrannical mother-in-law.

In the third act, the set goes from abstract to cheesy. A large hanging mural inscribed with "The Damned" in Russian is lowered as a kind of backdrop. When Janácek's foreboding thunderstorm moves in, there's a crash and a slow, creaky lowering of the mural. In the rest of the scenes, characters trample on it for no apparent reason.

In trying to exalt the tale's significance with gesture and set abstraction, Alden's visual take on Janácek's musical gem too often resembles an overly grim parody of Russian life.

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Cynthia Greenwood