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Leos Janacek's "Kat'a Kabanova" at The San Francisco Opera is a riveting, psychological drama that, mostly pits strong female characters against weak men. The exceptions would be the characters of Kat'a and the wealthy merchant, Dikoj. He continually berates his nephew Boris. Boris has to put up with it because he's biding his time, waiting to come of age to collect his inheritance. He's in love with Katia, and she's noticing him.

The teacher Kudjras rhapsodizes poetically over the Volga. He sees real beauty and gets peace and serenity from it. This opera also is very class conscious. The maids listen to him and are astounded by it. They work hard, day in and day out, and see nothing of what Kudjras sees. They have no idea how he can see what he sees and feel what he feels. It's just a river to them, and all they know is work. This carries over to Dikoj and the mother-in-law. They were merchants, worked hard, accumulated wealth, but know absolutely nothing of contemplation, peace of mind, beauty, in short, nothing that doesn't generate income.

Katia's mother-in-law, Kabanicha is jealous of her because since they were married, her son Tichon pays more attention to Katia than to her. She treats Katia as a virtual prisoner and lives to berate and humiliate her. The marriage probably would be happy enough without Kabanicha, but as it is, it's unbearable, and Katia's gaze is wandering, and she is eaten by guilt. When Tichon has to go away, Katia begs him to take her with him. He refuses. She then begs him to make her vow to be faithful, but he refuses that. Kabanicha, in front of the assembled company, demands that Tichon make Katia vow faithfulness and spells out the terms in humiliating detail. Katia faints.

Varvara is a foster daughter in the Kabanov household. She's bold, daring, vivacious, and in love with Kudrjas. She steals the key to the garden behind the house, plots a rendezvous with him, invites Boris, then gives the key to Katia and tells her to come. She's wracked with guilt and knows the key will be her undoing. Instead of throwing it away, though, she hides it when Kabanicha appears. Dikoj comes courting Kabanicha in a ridiculous scene, and Katia steals into the garden.

The sets are clean and modern. Kabanicha's house is the dominant structure, with a wall at the back that sometimes opens into a gently curving stairway halfway up. It's very simple, angular, and effective. In the garden scene the back wall is red, the stairway opens with the dark storm clouds on the backdrop. The house rolls to the side and is enveloped with a scrim type fabric that has the same storm clouds painted on it to seemingly symbolize the gathering storm over the Kabanov's. Varvara and Kudjras have their affair, and it's good. Katia and Boris have theirs, but the music's a mixture of beautiful soaring lyricism and the crashing crescendos of her guilt.

The final act is simply riveting. It's dark and rainy...real rain. Thirty gallons of water get rained onto the deck. The Chorus sings sort of a funeral dirge. Men in black with black umbrellas with handles that are shafts of light move and gather on the stage. Dikoj says storms are punishment from God. Katia is tormented with guilt, and confesses all to the assembled company. She has said she likes to soar like a bird. Everything has held her back, mostly her own guilt. Dressed in a white gown, she's alone in front of a dark scrim with a flock of birds painted on it in an Alfred Hitchcock effect. She sees her own death and longs to see Boris again. The dark dissolves and he's on the other side of the scrim, which is raised. They do a rhapsodic duet. He's being sent to Moscow. She wants him to take her with him. He can't. A giant cutout of a bird is in the center of the stage and seems to enfold her. She throws herself into the Volga, which once again is real water, three hundred gallons of it, is scooped out, and put in her coffin.

"Kat'a Kabanova" has a first rate cast from top to bottom led by Karita Matilla's debut in the title role. She's soft and sensuous, and wants nothing but love. When it's given, she responds; when it's not, she shrinks. Ultimately, she's overcome by her guilt, but rather than a raving madness, she seems to transcend this plane of existence in an ethereal transfiguration. Ute Doring is a vivacious and undaunted Varvara. She uses all her charms to get what she wants, and nothing will stop her. Hanna Shwartz is the malevolent Kabanicha. It's hard to see any redeeming quality in her. Her costume is constructed from quilted pieces of half-inch foam tubing. Katia, Varvara, and Tichon all have similar coats early in the first act. They shed theirs, and thus their emotional hardness, but Schwartz keeps hers throughout and climaxes with rejoicing at Katia's death. Albert Bonnema was a very beautiful and lyrical Boris in a weak role. Richard Decker's Tichon was almost tragic in that he really seemed to love Katia but he didn't dare to show it because of his mother. That was probably the root cause of the entire tragedy. Raymond Very was a ray of light and poetry as Kudrjas. Donald Runnicles was perfect as he led the orchestra in some of Leos Janacek's most beautiful and ethereal music that has a melodic transparency reminiscent of Scriabin or late Wagner. Johannes Schaaf's new production of Janacek's "Kat'a Kabanova" is simply stunning, and the highlight of the season at The San Francisco Opera.