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Subtle Villainy: Janacek's 'Katya Kabanova'

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

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Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.