One opera to make you weep, one to creep you out. One to make you look back in sadness, one to make you look forward in fear. Though they were written almost a century apart, they meet psychologically in the dark place where suppression of individuality leads to disaster.
I’m not sure Spoleto Festival USA programmers had that idea in mind when booking Leos Janacek’s “Kat’a Kabanova” and Michael Nyman’s “Facing Goya.” But the two dovetail successfully.
Mainstream operagoers won’t know either one, but Janacek’s music will be familiar if they know his “Sinfonietta.” (A second-act orchestral interlude echoes that blazing brass piece.) Kat’a, ignored by her weakling of a husband and bullied by a controlling mother-in-law, rebels by loving a wastrel and pays terribly. Janacek, then a widower, wrote it four years after beginning his passionate, unrequited obsession with a younger married woman, so read into that what you will.
Betsy Horne exemplifies what’s best about Spoleto: The sense of discovery audiences get when a little-known artist gives a triumphant performance. (Someone else had been cast, but Horne stepped in to make her U.S. debut as Kat’a.)
She’s a big-shouldered blonde whose presence makes the narrow-minded people around her seem shrunken, not just emotionally but physically. Yet she has a vulnerability and innocence they lack.
Designer Matt Saunders traps her on a Sottile Theatre set with a lowered ceiling that always seems to press down on her. She looks like Alice in Wonderland after drinking the potion that makes her too big for her world. The Volga River provides the only suggestion of color, glimmering in gold and green and blue like a Monet painting seen by different lights.
Irish director Garry Hynes, no stranger to mother-daughter conflicts – she won a Tony Award for “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” – lets Kabanicha (powerful Jennifer Roderer) hammer her daughter-in-law vocally. The men around both of them recede, and we see that even lover Boris (the convincing Rolando Sanz) doesn’t have the strength to save Kat’a.
It is humanity that needs to be saved from its own worst impulses in “Goya,” a symbolic opera where no characters have names and four of the five singers turn up in many different guises. The one who doesn’t change (tender-voiced Suzanna Guzmán) has come into possession of the skull of Spanish painter Francisco Goya.
I assume Nyman and librettist Victoria Hardie chose Goya because he’s the bridge between old masters and modernism. (He painted from the 1760s to his death in 1828.) His genius, which led him to paint fantastic and often horrible scenes, was incomprehensible to peers but an inspiration to Picasso and Manet.
Scientists in “Goya” want to extract DNA from the skull to isolate a “talent gene” – and, by inference, create a human race of uniform excellence. Laser-voiced tenor Thomas Michael Allen (a Davidson College alumnus and former member of Oratorio Singers of Charlotte) and soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird (an Opera Carolina alumna), who sometimes sings 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 argue the value of diversity, sometimes while footage of Hitler gets projected on a screen behind the Dock Street Theatre stage, and explain that creativity can never be measured.
This sounds didactic, especially as Allen and Bird are white and their rebutters are African-American, Korean-American and Latina. But in the second act, where Goya shows up to claim his DNA, the show gets funnier and more balanced. Nyman, who’s still best known for his score for “The Piano,” writes music that washes over us in broad waves, pulling us slowly into the cozy or chilly moods he builds.