'Kat'a Kabanova' definitive Janacek expertly presented by Spoleto production

Betsy Horne in "Kat'a Kabanova" at the Sottile Theatre.

It's hard to imagine that Janacek's reputation outside his native Czechoslovakia was initially made not by his operatic works but by his chamber and orchestral music. It took a while for the world to catch up with perhaps the most original opera composer of the 20th century. Indeed, Janacek had a unique perspective of the operatic tradition and its trajectory, informed as it was by the tumultuous century unfolding as he composed "Kat'a Kabanova" during his creative last period.

Premiered in 1921, this work defines his late operatic style, which also includes "The Makropulos Affair" and "The Cunning Little Vixen." Based on "The Storm," a play by Alexander Ostrovsky, this work doesn't offer much by way of plot: a rather predictable story of an adulterous young wife who drives herself to suicide. In the hands of Janacek, however, it turns into an insightful study on human nature, a mature artist's portrait of an idealized young female character struggling with entrapment and escape.

This work is as good as opera can get. Perfectly balanced, impeccably paced, powerful and nuanced, it appeals to traditionalists and modernists alike, as it straddles the 19th and the 20th centuries in perfect proportion. Janacek has assimilated the great operatic tradition, mostly through Smetana, whose influence can be heard in the younger man's earlier operas, but Janacek identifies with the new century and is clearly fascinated with the possibilities of exploring the dramatic power of folk material, French-inspired whole-tones scales, non-triadic harmonies, atonal gestures and angular lines.

The opera is almost a single-character portrait, much like the "Makropulos Affair," concentrating on the inner world of the title character at the expense of significantly developing others, who tend to be stock in nature. The gain in impact is worth it, as the listener becomes increasingly invested in the emotional transformation of the central character.

Consistent with his character-painting libretto, Janacek shies away from ensemble singing and strongly favors musical monologues. In fact, the only places where voices overlap are when there is multiple parallel action. Janacek, who always includes the chorus in his operas, here finds a new function for it, a brief offstage ghost-like whisper of the river, a song of the forest.

By the time he wrote "Kat'a Kabanova," Janacek had developed his characteristic orchestration style, a rough amalgam of unblended layers, distinct and mostly bare, often in extreme registers with an almost empty middle ground, and quirky, awkward part writing. Vocal and orchestral realms are distinct from each other. The orchestra takes on the role of formal articulation.

He does not use leitmotifs, but weaves his fabric through the use of short orchestral gestures, inventive and catchy motifs that are constantly and masterfully spun out in variations to build whole scenes. Vocal lines are constructed using the composer's own "speech-melody" technique, a method of structuring phrases by transcribing ordinary speech into musical notation and studying the influence of mood and emotion on rhythm and pitch. The independent vocal and orchestral strands of material co-exist and sometimes echo each other, providing links and comments that assemble into a kind of rondo form.

Saturday's performance of this challenging score was wonderful, expertly led by Anne Manson. The title role was delivered flawlessly by a powerful Betsy Horne. Equally impressive were Jennifer Rodener as the mother-in-law and Dennis Petersen as the husband. Both were quite challenging roles to perform.

"Kat'a Kabanova" is about escape, and this production was extremely effective in creating a claustrophobic environment that emphasizes the need to break free. The production design had a Soviet aesthetic, and the ceiling of the oblong concrete set was low and overbearing. Nature, a theme the composer brings back time and again, is purposefully kept outside the set in order to feel distant and unreachable. When the end comes, there is a sense of liberation, and relief.

Yiorgos Vassilandonakis is a professor of composition at the College of Charleston.