El Niño/Katya Kabanova, Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston, South Carolina – review

As John Adams’ operas have gained acceptance, they have predictably shed their original productions by Peter Sellars. This has happened in a big way here with John La Bouchardière’s production of Adams’ nativity drama El Niño. Though it is nominally an oratorio, Sellars’ staging for its 2000 premiere portrayed Mary and Joseph as Hispanic teenagers in Southern California while La Bouchardière promotes the universality inherent in the work’s almost bewildering array of biblical and non-biblical texts.

By treating El Niño as a kind of Christian mystery play in which the core drama is enacted by puppets, La Bouchardière, who also designed the set, ensures that the story is arrestingly told while leaving ample leeway for interpretive elaboration by solo singers and chorus (the Westminster Choir), all enacted in Memminger Auditorium on a dirt-covered floor situated between audience and orchestra.

With the driving minimalistic iterations of Adams’ score securely projected under Joe Miller’s direction, Spoleto Festival USA makes a strong case for El Niño, although its distracting shift from English to Spanish texts for several reflective numbers still strikes one as a misguided bow towards cultural diversity and causes tension – so highly charged when, for instance, Joseph reacts to Mary’s pregnancy or Herod determines to slaughter the innocents – to sag.

Caitlin Lynch, Erica Brookhyser and Mark Walters are outstanding as the principal vocal soloists, as are countertenors Daniel Brubeck, Brian Cummings and Steven Rickards, whose close harmonies sound otherworldly.

Spoleto is just about the only US festival to embrace the full range of the performing arts, and you know you’re at an interesting place when of the three operas Katya Kabanova is the best known. (Michael Nyman’s Facing Goya is also programmed.) A simple cross is all that adorns the cement walls of Irish director Garry Hynes’s stark production of Janáček’s opera. It is a reminder that the heroine’s undoing stems not just from the oppressive rural Russian society she married into but also from the affront to her religious beliefs caused by her escapist adulterous affair. Hynes, in her first opera staging, plausibly regards Katya’s affair with Boris as an essential step towards freeing herself from a drunken husband and an abusive mother-in-law that only death can achieve.

Following her initial contact with Boris, Katya radiates a detached glow suggesting that she has already set her mind on suicide, which renders her internal struggles in the final act anticlimactic. Hynes also neglects other characters, most damagingly the mother-in-law, Kabanicha (Jennifer Roderer), whose vehement delivery borders on caricature. The unrelieved bareness of Matt Saunders’ set, with its low ceiling, is too obviously an attempt to suggest claustrophobia.

Still, much of the power of Janáček’s masterpiece comes through, thanks to the radiant performance of Betsy Horne in the title role. She wins the audience’s sympathy for Katya while hinting at the girl’s mental imbalance, and Katya’s big outbursts are invested with vocal power. Rolando Sanz brings a ringing tenor voice to Boris’s shallow persona, and Dennis Petersen, as Katya’s husband Tichon, gives a cringe-inducing performance as the son of a domineering mother. Conductor Anne Manson presides over an alertly structured performance.


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