Subtle Villainy: Janacek's 'Katya Kabanova' An opera with a most unusual — and very disturbing — 'bad guy': a little old lady who believes that anyone who doesn't agree with her moral code must pay a terrible price.
NPR logo Subtle Villainy: Janacek's 'Katya Kabanova'

Subtle Villainy: Janacek's 'Katya Kabanova'

Hear An Introduction To 'Katya Kabanova'

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Marcus Pelz, Marian Talaba, Janice Watson and Deborah Polaski in 'Katya Kabanova' at the Vienna State Opera. Michael Pöhn/Vienna State Opera hide caption

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Michael Pöhn/Vienna State Opera

Marcus Pelz, Marian Talaba, Janice Watson and Deborah Polaski in 'Katya Kabanova' at the Vienna State Opera.

Michael Pöhn/Vienna State Opera

Great drama often thrives on compelling villains, and opera is a great place to find them — ranging from obvious evildoers whose deeds are inevitably exposed to characters whose treachery is so deeply seated that it ultimately proves irresistible.

The Hit Single

Act Two ends with a stunning sequence of overlapping and contrasting love duets. Boris (tenor Klaus Florian Vogt) greets Katya (soprano Janice Watson) using her full name, Katerina Petrovna. They express their intense but guilty passion, finally conceding that their love is both irresistible and hopeless. At the same time, nearby, Varvara and Kudrash (mezzo-soprano Stephane Houtzeel and tenor Norbert Ernst) enjoy their innocent and carefree infatuation.

Act Two Finale: "Is That You, Katerina …?"

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The B Side

Janacek's brilliant orchestral style plays a large role in making his operas both musically and dramatically compelling, as heard in the eloquent orchestral introduction to 'Katya Kabanova.'

Orchestral Introduction

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The obvious villains tend to be characters we actually enjoy watching. Iago in Verdi's Otello and Scarpia in Puccini's Tosca are two prime examples of rogues that we love to hate. Iago is so plainly smarmy and underhanded, and Scarpia so arrogant and brutal, that it's oddly satisfying to watch them work — and even more satisfying to see them defeated.

In other instances, operatic villainy is a lot harder to pin down. Mozart's Don Giovanni is a villain to be sure, but not the kind we love to hate. He's more complicated than that. We probably should hate him, but he's so outwardly good-natured and charming that it's hard not to like the guy, and even root for him when he finally gets in trouble.

Yet even the cunning Don Giovanni may not be as unsettling as the villain who drives this week's opera. In his dark drama Katya Kabanova, Leos Janácek gives us one of the most unusual and contemptible villains in any opera, and one of the most disturbing, as well: the sort of person who can live among us, quietly and without anyone objecting. She's a little old lady, a respected citizen and the mother of a grown son. She also thinks that her own way of judging what's moral, and what's not, is the only way — and that anyone who disagrees, even those closest to her, must pay a terrible price. And the people around her? They look the other way. They can't condemn her intolerance without re-examining their own.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Janácek's eye-opening drama Katya Kabanova in a production from the Vienna State Opera. The stars are soprano Janice Watson in the title role, with mezzo-soprano Deborah Polaski as Kabanicha, the quiet villain whose attitudes are tragic for those around her.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

The Story Of 'Katya Kabanova'

The opera is set in a Russian village in the 1860s. ACT ONE begins in a public park. A teacher named Kudrash watches while his friend Boris is belittled by his uncle, Dikoj, a local merchant. When Dikoj leaves, Boris tells Kudrash that he's fallen in love with a married woman.

Nearby is the home of the Kabanov family. The young man Tichon lives there, with his gentle wife Katya and Tichon's domineering mother, known as Kabanicha. Tichon is a mild man who drinks too much, and doesn't pay much attention to Katya. Yet Kabanicha accuses Tichon of loving his wife more than his own mother. When Katya comes to Tichon's defense, Kabanicha tells her to shut up and mind her own business.

Janice Watson as the title character in 'Katya Kabanova' at the Vienna State Opera. Michael Pöhn/Vienna State Opera hide caption

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Michael Pöhn/Vienna State Opera

Janice Watson as the title character in 'Katya Kabanova' at the Vienna State Opera.

Michael Pöhn/Vienna State Opera

Tichon says he loves them both. Kabanicha tells Tichon not to tell his wife that he loves her — otherwise, she'll never fear him. Kabanicha coldly says that if Katya had an affair, Tichon would probably do nothing about it. When the old woman goes inside, Varvara, a young girl they've taken in, tells Tichon that she feels sorry for Katya.

In the next scene, inside the house, Katya and Varvara are talking. Katya says that before she got married, she used to live a peaceful, carefree life. Now she's unhappy, and feels like she's "falling into sin." In her dreams, Katya says, she's been having an affair with another man.

Tichon enters. Kabanicha has ordered him off on a trip to do some business. Katya begs him either not to go, or to take her with him. She seems afraid of what might happen while he's away.

Kabanicha then comes into the room and forces Tichon to have Katya make demeaning promises: that she'll keep busy while he's gone, that she won't be rude, that she'll honor her mother-in-law and that she won't stare out the window at young men. Tichon objects to this as unnecessary, but does as his mother says. When Katya embraces Tichon, Kabanicha rebukes her for such a shameful physical display. Tichon breaks away from Katya and abruptly leaves the house.

At the start of ACT TWO, Kabanicha is railing at Katya for not being suitably upset at her husband's absence, while Varvara is hoping to lift Katya's spirits. She's been trying to arrange a meeting between Katya and a young man named Boris, who seems taken with her. Varvara steals Kabanicha's gate key, and gives it to Katya.

The next scene is at night, outside the Kabanov's home. The teacher Kudrash is there, waiting for someone. Boris turns up. He admits that he's in love with Katya, and says a young woman told him he should wait here, by the gate. That woman was Varvara, who soon appears and goes off with Kudrash.

Katya then emerges from the house and approaches Boris. He tries to take her hand, but she resists. He says he loves her. She's noticed him before, and she plainly feels the same way. Katya warns him that their love will destroy them both — but she soon gives in and embraces him.

Janacek sets their duet to music that's both passionate and tragic. They acknowledge their love, but also seem to know that their situation is hopeless. Then, in a brilliant musical turn, Janacek combines this bittersweet duet with distant exchanges between the carefree couple, Varvara and Kudrash. The act ends as Katya returns home, leaving Boris alone in the dark.

Who's Who

Janice Watson ................. Katya

Deborah Polaski ........ Kabanicha

Klaus Florian Vogt ............. Boris

Stephanie Houtzeel ........ Varvara

Norbert Ernst ................ Kudrash

Marian Talaba ................ Tichon

Wolfgang Bankl ................. Dikoj

Marcus Pelz ................. Kuligan

Donna Ellen ................. Feklusa

Juliette Mars .................. Glasa

Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Franz Welser-Möst, conductor

ACT THREE takes place two weeks later and begins at an abandoned church near the Volga River. People have come to the ruins to escape a storm. Kudrash argues with the boorish merchant Dikoj. Then Varvara appears, followed by Boris. Varvara is worried about Katya, who has been acting bizarrely ever since Tichon returned from his trip. And Varvara says Kabanicha has been "eying Katya like a snake."

Katya then runs in, nearly hysterical. Boris and Dikoj hide. Katya is convinced that the violent storm is punishment from God for her infidelity. Varvara and Kudrash try to quiet her.

But when Kabanicha and Tichon arrive, Katya immediately confesses her affair. She tells Tichon that while he was gone, she was with another man each night for ten nights. Tichon tries to deny it, but Katya even tells him it was Boris who was her lover. Kabanicha revels in Katya's shame, saying, "It's just as I predicted." Katya runs off into the storm.

The final scene is on the banks of the Volga at nightfall. Tichon passes by, looking for Katya. He says his mother wants Katya "buried alive," but that he still loves her. Varvara appears with Kudrash. She tells him that Kabanicha has been locking her in her room. Kudrash tells her they should run off together to Moscow. She agrees, and they leave.

Katya enters alone. In a long, painful monologue, she wishes for death, saying, "they used to throw women like me into the Volga. But now they tell me, 'stay alive, and let your sin torment you.'" Boris hears her from a distance, and approaches. He tells her that his uncle is sending him to a trading post in Siberia. Katya tells him not to worry about her. They say goodbye, and he slowly walks away. In the background there's a chorus. In the score, they're instructed to sing a wavering vowel, to sound "like the Volga sighing."

Alone, Katya is hallucinating, and thinks she's hearing voices. She crawls to the riverbank. Singing that flowers will blossom, and birds will flutter at her grave, she throws herself into the water.

Someone sees Katya going into the river, and villagers appear. Tichon rushes in, accusing Kabanicha of destroying his wife. A small boat is launched, and Katya's body is dragged onshore. Tichon collapses, while Kabanicha calmly thanks everyone for their assistance.