ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre, Auckland

16/09/2017 - 23/09/2017

St James Theatre 2, Wellington

07/10/2017 - 14/10/2017

Production Details

New Zealand Opera closes 2017 with Kátya Kabanová 

This beautifully cinematic production transports Kátya Kabanová to white picket-fence 1950s America, where Janáček’s evocative music betrays what lies beneath the surface. 

Kátya’s passionate nature puts her at odds with the conservative, self-righteous society around her as she searches for an escape from her loveless marriage and cruel mother-in-law with devastating consequences.

In this contemporary re-imagining of the story, Kátya’s plight is understandable, hopeless and all too frequently echoed in modern society. 

The production comes to New Zealand following its premiere season at Seattle Opera earlier this year, opening to rave reviews.

“A feverishly powerful emotional experience.” – The Seattle Times 

“Packs a potent visceral punch both visually and emotionally. This production leaves no doubt why Leoš Janácek, who wrote both Kabanova’s music and libretto, is now considered one of the 20th century’s best composers of opera.” – Queen Anne News 

“Katya Kabanova is a memorable, thrilling production in every way…Well-conceived tragedy makes you think about human nature in deeper ways while enjoying the challenge of great theater. This production achieves those high goals.” – Seattle Gay News

“…a lush, compelling three-act opera with an alluring backstory.” – The Stranger   

The original creative team of Australian trio Patrick Nolan (director), Genevieve Blanchett (Designer) and Mark Howett (Lighting Designer) join Conductor Wyn Daviesand a brand new cast to begin rehearsals in Auckland in mid-August, ahead of seasons in Auckland and Wellington from 16 September.

Three international voices join a mainly Kiwi cast with Russian-American soprano Dina Kuznetsova making her New Zealand Opera debut in the title role, with Australian-born tenor Angus Wood as Boris and Australian mezzo-soprano Hayley Sugars making her New Zealand Opera debut as Varvara. 

Margaret Medlyn will play the matriarch Kabanicha, alongside Conal Coad (Dikój),Andrew Glover (Tichon), James Benjamin Rodgers (Ványa), Emma Sloman (Glasha) and Robert Tucker (Kuligin).

New Zealand Opera General Director Stuart Maunder calls Kátya Kabanová one of the great operas of the 20th century.  

“This production is a showcase of singing actors, orchestral colour and heartbreaking emotions, with a spectacular design that combines 1950s styling with stunning projections,” Maunder says.

“We have gathered a brilliant ensemble and in their hands, Janáček’s powerful work will be as devastating as it is beautiful.” 

Accompanied by Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Featuring the Freemasons New Zealand Opera Chorus. Sung in Czech with English surtitles. Running time approximately two hours including a twenty minute interval.

New Zealand Opera presents
Kátya Kabanová

ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre, Auckland 
16-23 September (four performances)
Book at Ticketmaster 

St James Theatre, Wellington 
7-14 October (four performances)
Book at Ticketek


Dina Kuznetsova as Kátya Kabanová
Angus Wood as Boris 
Conal Coad as Dikój
Margaret Medlyn as Kabanicha
Andrew Glover as Tichon
Hayley Sugars as Varvara
James Benjamin Rodgers as Kudrjas 
Robert Tucker as Kuligin
Emma Sloman as Glasha

Conductor – Wyn Davies 
Director - Patrick Nolan
Jacqueline Coats -  Assistant Director 
Genevieve Blanchett – Production Designer
Mark Howett – Lighting Designer 

Theatre , Opera ,

(Four performances in each centre)

Musically seductive and vibrant, theatrically clever and creative

Review by Michael Hooper 17th Sep 2017

This really is an opera of two distinct halves. The first is lush and lyrical, embroidered with clever effects and a panoramic set; the second is bleak.  Inspired by mid-20th century filmmaker Douglas Sirk, director Patrick Nolan layers suede-textured irony, an almost whimsical smirk, over the work’s social commentary, giving the first 40 minutes an enjoyable, warming and unexpected generosity of humour and spirit.

The melodic, sweeping score is sometimes Copeland-like in its panoramas, sometimes sweetened with the driven romanticism of Richard Strauss, and often as embracing as the dreaminess of Debussy. A newcomer to Janácek may be surprised by the sheer joy and beauty of the heady music flowing richly from the APO, under the smooth, seamless direction of NZO director of music Wyn Davies.

Country town good guys, the indecisive and moral-bound Kátya, and even the archetypal villainess mother Kabanicha, are brightened with the comic brush that lifts the first half into a fast-moving, stage musical that even fans of Oklahoma would enjoy. It is a play (The Storm) set to music. No wonder the audience is so delighted and smiling at intermission, perhaps paying scant heed to the haunting, recurring visions of the river, underscored by some long, brooding phrases from the basses, that portended the dark and stark second half to come.

The production opens in silence, on a featureless slab of graphite stage onto which Kátya wanders. A screen runs the width of the stage, a projection setting the scene initially in the mountains. The sky fills with stars, a white picket fence is assembled to symbolically contain Kátya and, like a street scene from The Magnificent Ambersons, a parade of suburban politeness and conservative townsfolk passes by: pram, bicycle, war veterans and gentlemen doffing hats. 

Production designer Genevieve Blanchett has delivered a perfect, hydrangea-fringed visual framework. The setting is 1950s America, and the shoulders, waists and trim silhouettes from the Sears Roebuck catalogue are harbingers of an imminent rock ’n’ roll era. The costume floral prints are pure Betty Crocker, while the furniture in the pelmetted drawing room must have come from Kirkcaldies. Painstakingly shot and smartly integrated into the set are still and moving images by lighting designer Mark Howett. They tread a fine line between scene creation and domination, but seldom jar.

The plot is relatively simple, but the creation of the characters is not. The performers are singing conversations over the top of a musical web, using the natural melody and rhythm of the words. It’s a “sung drama” says the director, and as such he wants us to get involved with the characters, one of which is nature herself, embodied in trees, clouds, lightning and of course the prima donna which is the river. 

Russian-American soprano Dina Kuznetsova as Kátya has a beautifully burnished, amber-hued voice with sweetness, and admirable depth and texture. It occasionally folds into itself as she becomes enfolded in her character, but the conductor tunes the orchestra appropriately and all is well. She shoulders a demanding title role (which she has also performed in Santiago and Hamburg) sensitively and with stamina, carefully navigating the vocal ladders with clarity and ease. Well, clarity must to some degree be assumed, as the original language Moravian dialect would be beyond most of us.  

While Ms Kuznetsova is fluent, I must applaud the agility with which the rest of the cast appears to deal with the linguistics, a credit to language coaches Lada Valesova and Adriana Hanic. Czech is somewhat consonantal and words often end abruptly, yet the singing is universally fluid and mellifluous, the cast’s emotionally informed expression of the libretto negating the need to constantly refer to the surtitles.

Masterfully executed music, written as the canvas for the characters’ feelings and played with bravura by the APO, also adds meaning beyond comprehension of the language. When Kátya tells of her weeping in church, sure enough there are tears coming from the violins, the literal reflection reminding me of the ‘tone poems’ epitomised by Strauss. From the pit, the silken clarinet of section associate principal James Wye floats up periodically through whirlpools of surging emotions, like the mists rising over that lurking river, adding moments of private contemplation to the highly costumed, styled and externalised world of the Kabanov family. Conversely, the four-strong percussion/tympani team underpins the rhythm and drama of the work. Such collaboration between director, conductor, players and cast is a joy an audience is seldom privileged to share. 

Angus Wood, remembered for his excellent Pinkerton in the NZO production of Madama Butterfly, is in mellow voice as the less-than-committed would-be lover of Kátya, the devil whispering in her Catholic ear. Veteran Conal Coad’s rich voice is also in fine form as the buffa love interest of Kátya’s mother-in-law Kabanicha, regaling us on several occasions with his formidable lung power.

James Benjamin Rogers and Robert Tucker perform their support roles with ease, as do Emma Sloman and Emma Roxburgh. Andrew Glover attacks the role of Kátya’s spineless husband Tichon with energy and more than a pinch of bitterness.

This brings me to the two stand-out performances, besides the title role. The aptly named Hayley Sugars, looking for all the world like Karen Carpenter with a Marcel wave, gives us a carefree natural, open-voiced Varvara, Kátya’s younger adopted sister. She pairs beautifully with James Benjamin Rogers as Kudrjas. They are the one couple that seems harmonious, and the folk music melodies they are given by Janácek underscore this.

Director Nolan shines a commedia dell’ arte light on the evil mother-in-law Kabanicha, and Margaret Medlyn, gloved, buttoned up and be-draped with fox fur, plays it to the hilt, channelling Joan Collins and adding a nuance of the late Wayland Flowers’ nasty puppet Madame as she cruelly derides Kátya, cigarette poised and handbag hung. Written to be just off the beat, the role demands dexterity and discipline which she applies while still leaving room to play a little vocally. 

Janácek, who died in 1928, would have been a Grey Power poster boy. He was 62 years old when he found musical success (with Janufa) and, in the twelve years following, he produced seven operas and other classical works, although increased respect for those outside his home country was not really to happen until the seventies. 

Kátya Kabanová is a lean and trim composition, condensing Alexander Ostrovsky’s mid-19th century play into less than two hours which pass all too quickly. Patrick Nolan’s relocation of the story to post-war, small town America fits so perfectly psychosocially that I didn’t even notice whether Boris’s banishment to Siberia had been updated.

There are no ‘hit’ songs – so you probably won’t come out humming, and there are no big chorus numbers, however the drama and engagement of the language and the characters offer an intellectual and creative feast. That said, there is great reliance on the projected imagery, without which the final act especially would sometimes be simply a couple of people singing out to the audience from a bare floor, downstage centre. These are times when all eggs are in the tech basket, which thankfully delivers. 

Do not fear the unfamiliarity of the composer or the opera; Act One and Act Two are brimming with cleverly stylised humour and musicality, enough to nourish you through the more static and stark scenes of Act Three. If you have ever sighed about the opera company’s repeating a ‘Top 10’ repertoire, you should feel morally bound to attend, or forever hold your peace. Support of the core repertoire has given you this opportunity which should be seized. Musically seductive and vibrant, theatrically clever and creative, this Kátya Kabanová will create Janácek fans. 


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