Janacek’s Katya Kabanova, Opera North at Leeds Grand Theatre on 2 Feb 2019

Sex, sanctity, and sin clash in this three-act, thought-provoking production, each act marked by an orchestral overture.

The first Act begins rich with prolepsis and prefiguration. From the first bars we can tell that the opera is placing us in a tragic world, and that the title character, Katya, is not likely to have a superb time. Well—she does in the second Act, but pays for it in the third and final.

The curtain rises to reveal an assortment of townspeople in front of a screen. As always in a Tim Alberry (Director) production, the stage set is atmospheric and sensitively fitted to the period and the mood of the drama. The townspeople quickly disperse, leaving Vanya Kudyrash (Alexander Sprague) sitting on a bench, gazing out onto the audience, singing an ode on the river Volga (unstaged) which will be a sort of persistent location of significance to the opera—right up until the point at which Katya drowns herself in it (apologies for spoilers).

Vanya is singing this paean not to himself, but to the female servant, Glasha (Laura Kelly-McInroy), who is not as taken with the river: to Vanya’s declarations of its heavenliness, she simply responds, “What nonsense!” This sets up a fairly consistent tension between dreamers and realists in the opera. By the end of it, it is my impression that Janacek—and maybe Alexander Ostrovsky, who wrote the play, The Storm (1859), upon which Janacek’s opera is based—admires more the dreamers, but suspects that they are quite adept in ruining their own—and others’—lives.

This first scene (the whole opera consists only of six long scenes across the entirety of its three Acts, showing an impressively controlled dramaturgy—probably owing to Ostrovsky) introduces all the major characters. After this episode with Vanya and Glasha, Boris (Harold Meers), the young, charismatic leading man enters, being constantly chided by his uncle Dikoy (Stephen Richardson). After Dikoy finishes his tirade and leaves, Boris confesses to Vanya (it is implied that they are to some extent friends) his love for Katya Kabanova.

Enter Katya (Stephanie Corley) and her family, returning from church. They appear (mostly) perfect to their fellow townspeople, but within the family is weakness and corruption. Katya’s husband Tichon (Andrew Kennedy) is a rather battered and bruised figure, who medicates this with a reliance on alcohol. Part of his batteredness and bruisedness stems from the presence of his tyrannical mother Kabanicha in the house, played show-stealingly well by Heather Shipp. Is the mother the most three-dimensional character in literature or music? No. Is she a brilliant caricature? Yes, and the relationship between her and Kennedy’s Tichon seems almost to approach that of Norman and Mrs Bates at times.

Apart from this half comic, half tragic pair, we have the two more sympathetic characters in the household, Kabanicha’s foster-child, Varya (charmingly played by Katie Bray), who, it is quickly revealed, is carrying on a tryst with Vanya, and Katya herself, who, like Boris, is torn between two competing desires, namely her desire for Boris, and her contrary desire to remain pious and faithful to her husband. These she lets spill to Varya, effectively her sister and confidante, in the second and final scene of the Act. In a beautiful aria-like rhapsody, Katya sings of her life before marriage, and the special place which the ritual of church-going held for her. At this point Janacek’s generally craggy harmony relaxes as the music itself becomes a hymn to this precious religious ritual.

Meanwhile, at the end of the first scene, Kabanicha has ordered her son Tichon to go on a business trip in an effort to make him less useless and by way of exercising her tyranny over him. The Act concludes with a startling display as Kabanicha gives orders to her son about his wife’s behaviour whilst he is away, which Tichon relates to his wife as they are given to him by his mother. Mother and son face outward to the audience whilst Katya, front and centre of stage, has her back to us, and silently receives the abuse. The dramatic and theatrical effect is considerable.

The second Act is perhaps the most fun. The first of its two scenes, mostly set-up, reveals a real naughtiness in the foster daughter Varya, who has stolen the key to the property’s garden gate from Kabanicha, allowing her to sneak out to see Vanya and, if Katya likes, allowing her to sneak out for a secret lover’s meeting with Boris. Although Varya is sympathetically presented in this production, the text does seem to suggest that she plays the role of temptress here, and so to the Christian frame of mind of the play might be read as rather uncomfortably close to Satan.

The first scene of the second Act comes to an amusing close, with a visit from Dikoy to Kabanicha. The text and the production are both very suggestive about their relationship and, as the curtain falls on the scene, he begins to lift up her dress, to the audience’s partial amusement and partial discomfort. For my money, this was a bit on the nose, and sacrificed the subtlety and suggestion in Janacek’s text for a slightly cheap laugh. This was strange for a Tim Alberry production, where the tendency is generally towards sensitivity and nuance.

The second Act’s concluding scene is a wonder. The two men, Vanya and Boris, await their ladies, somewhat surprised to see one another. Varya comes merrily along, singing a charming folk song, around which the orchestra simplifies in order to accompany her. She and Vanya go offstage to the riverside—the very place Vanya had declared heavenly at the start of the opera—to do whatever lovers do. Enter Katya. She varies and vacillates before Boris, eventually collapsing into embrace with him.

Varya and Vanya return to the stage, Varya encouraging Katya and Boris, sending them down to the river (offstage). Whilst Katya and Boris are offstage, Varya and Vanya enjoy some very sexy staging as she boasts of how well her plan to deceive Kabanicha has worked and is working. However, beneath this apparently triumphant and joyous moment, Janacek’s harmony reaches such a pitch of creepiness as to instil a feeling partly of discomfort and partly of awe at the skill of his musical dramaturgy.

On that note: I have focused a great deal on the story and drama of the performance, perhaps to the cost of appreciating the music. But one of the wonderful qualities of this opera is how skilfully Janacek fits his music to the dramaturgy, creating a true musical drama in the process. Indeed, there is hardly seam or wem between the art of Ostrovsky’s original drama and Janacek’s adaptation.

Throughout the night, the singing is on point and beyond reproach—increasingly the norm at Opera North productions—and the Orchestra of Opera North are on excellent form. Conductor Sian Edwards—making her ‘long overdue’, according to Opera North director Richard Mantle, début with the company—shows her expertise with opera of this period in bringing out all of Janacek’s wonderful invention and skill in orchestration, making for a truly moving musical experience.

The third Act represents Katya’s being torn apart by guilt, whereon she confesses to her affair in front of the townspeople, including her husband and mother-in-law. In the final scene, the various characters attempt to deal with the fallout of Katya’s confession. Varya and Vanya simply fly to Moscow in a moment of great optimism. Katya and Boris have a final meeting in which, tragically, he tells her he is being forced to leave the town by his uncle Dikoy. His final moments leaving Katya alone on the stage are quite affecting, and very well played by Meers and Corley.

I was not surprised to read in my programme notes—which, as always with Opera North, make a delightful treasure trove of discoveries—that in writing this opera Janacek was profoundly influenced by Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (which was produced by Opera North roughly a year ago), and must say that I was reminded of Puccini’s immortal tragic heroine as Katya threw herself, clutching a rock, into the River Volga. I was also reminded of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, but found upon looking into the matter that Ostrovsky’s original narrative preceded Tolstoy’s by a good ten to fifteen years.

Overall, a deeply affecting, and effective production, with hardly a flaw to be observed, either in music or in staging. I might object slightly to the rather prosaic English text, and wonder whether the original Czech might have been better (especially since this production was furnished with screens on which the dialogue was represented, which seemed a little bit odd for a production in English), or perhaps if there were a better translation available. This was out of character, since Opera North normally chooses exceptionally good libretto translations. Nevertheless, this is a minor point, and the power of the music and the theatrical production overcame this flaw ably.

Further performances at Leeds Grand Theatre on 9, 21 and 27 February.

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