There are no operatic frills or flamboyance in New Zealand Opera's Katya Kabanova. Janacek's 1921 masterpiece has been described as offering no redemption or hope, yet underpinning the bleakness is a certain sense of catharsis.
This is a tale of small-town frustration, with a heroine trapped in a loveless marriage, breaking free from unbearable domestic strictures to find the love that eventually seals her fate.
By setting the Czech opera in a postwar American Pacific Northwest, director Patrick Nolan has evoked the spiritual ennui of Hollywood film noir. The heroine fits better among those of contemporary film and theatre than any traditional 19th century opera.
The brilliant Margaret Medlyn is the imperious matriarch, locked in her own chilling winter of the soul. She ruthlessly deals with her weak son, beautifully characterised by Andrew Glover, and Conal Coad,the husband who has sought refuge in bluster and booze after decadesof her tyranny.
The doomed Katya is caught up in their web and her struggle to emerge is charted by Janacek with a subtlety that Dina Kuznetsova understands to the last inflection. In the third act, we see her unravel veering from hope and hysteria to acceptance of personal doom spurred on by Angus Wood's fickle but impressively sung lover.
Janacek's music is a constant presence, a subtle weave of multifarious colours. The Volga River, both life-blood and source of death, flows in the orchestral score and physically hovers over the action with the spectacular filmed backdrops of design team Genevieve Blanchett and Mark Howett.
Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra responds splendidly to the composer's often eccentric demands under Wyn Davies.
Casting is uniformly excellent, from Emma Sloman and James Benjamin Rodgers playful bantering by the picket fence, to Hayley Sugars and Rodgers, who represent a touchstone of normalcy in fraught surroundings.
This courageous production, premiered in Seattle this year, is a major achievement in our own operatic history.
Don't miss it.