Photo © Jane Hobson
The Lowry, Salford Quays
To paraphrase the famous saying, opera fans have waited years for a production of Katya Kabanova to arrive and now three come along all at once, with Opera North, the Royal Opera, and Scottish Opera all offering audiences the chance to see Leoš Janáček’s intense and seldom performed domestic tragedy on the UK stage throughout 2019.
Premiered in 1921, and first staged by Opera North in 1983, Janáček’s work is here presented in repertory with Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and a double of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi (1918) and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (1913), with Katya Kabanova and the latter pair highlighting the creativity and innovation that flourished during one of the most turbulent times of the 20th century.
The 1920s was a decade that saw the likes of young newcomers Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Kurt Weill establish themselves as future masters of 20th century music, but it also saw the ageing Janáček (65 at the turn of the decade) premiere his final (and arguably greatest) four operatic works: Káťa Kabanová (1921), The Cunning Little Vixen (1924), The Makropulos Affair (1926), and From the House of the Dead (1927), in a rather remarkable burst of later-life creativity.
Set to a prose-based libretto by Vincenc Červinka, and based on Russian playwright Aleksandr Ostrovsky’s 1859 drama, The Storm, Katya Kabanova is a tale of oppression, frustration and forbidden love, set in an isolated Russian village on the shores of the Volga River. The narrative centres on Katerina/Katya, a woman trapped in a unhappy marriage to her weak-willed husband, Tichon, bullied by her domineering and hypocritical mother-in-law, Kabanicha, and torn by her duty as a faithful wife and her illicit love for her younger neighbour, Boris.
Unfolding against the abstract, minimalist designs of Hildegard Bechtler, director Tim Albery’s sparse and dimly-lit production is a mostly straightforward, by-the-numbers account of the work, though it does do an effective job in highlighting the darkness and isolation of Katya’s tale.
Albery’s decision to perform the opera straight through (without an interval) is a mostly wise one, though the production does unfortunately fall flat during the lengthy, unaccompanied scene changes that too often break-up the flow. Some simple underscoring is all that is required to carry the momentum through into the following scenes and drown out the clunking of heavy scenery, but as things stand the audience have to awkwardly sit in silence wondering if something might have gone wrong backstage.
Stephanie Corley brings a real vulnerability and fragility to her portrayal of Katya, singing with great tone and purity. There are strong supporting performances too from Harold Meers as Boris, Heather Shipp as a suitably loathsome Kabanicha, Katie Bray as Varvara (Kabanicha’s foster daughter), Andrew Kennedy as Tichon, Stephen Richardson as the bullying Dikoy, and Alexander Sprague as Kudryash. Principals and chorus should all be praised for singing with exceptional levels of diction and clarity.
Under the baton of conductor Sian Edwards, the Orchestra of Opera North deliver a powerful and absorbing rendition of Janáček’s complex and glorious score, though some of the early vocals are lost in the volume of the music.
Norman Tucker’s English translation proves a strong one and maintains a rhythm and authenticity that can often be lost when translating opera librettos from their original language.
Katya Kabanova may be a wholly bleak affair, and Albery’s dark, intense production may not offer many laughs, but it’s a complex and thrilling work filled with some of Janáček’s most beautiful music, and it is puzzling that such a rewarding piece is performed so rarely.
Running Time: 1 hours and 45-minutes (approx.) (no interval)
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