Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Kátya Kabanová @ Royal Opera House, London

19, 22, 25, 28 June, 2, 5 July 2007

Kátya Kabanová

Kátya Kabanová (Photo: Bill Cooper)

The heroine of Kátya Kabanová yearns to take wing like a bird and the Royal Opera Orchestra certainly soars into the stratosphere under the baton of Charles Mackerras. This may be a well-trodden path for the veteran conductor but I don’t think I’ve ever heard him better, every note fresh and true. The sweep of the lush orchestrations is breathtaking and the scoring of this ultimately grim drama incredibly moving.

Kátya Kabanová contains some of the most tender music Janáček wrote. Written in 1920-21 and based on Ostrovsky’s play The Storm of some 60 years earlier, the wilful adultery depicted could hardly have been more shocking to contemporary audiences and yet, ever the champion of the oppressed, the composer paints it all with tremendous sympathy and compassion.

Kátya, a once carefree girl, is trapped in a loveless marriage with an older man, who is completely dominated by a fierce and disapproving mother. When, from the depths of her conscience, Katya confesses her affair with another man, the mother-in-law from hell says she should be buried alive as punishment but in truth she already is, suffocating under a brutal regime where merely looking out of the window is considered a sin.

As writer of the libretto himself, Janáček compresses the material amazingly well into a tightly-structured piece of just 90-odd minutes. There’s no sense of rush as he delivers exposition of character and situation with immense efficiency.

Vocally, the Royal Opera also really comes up with the goods this time. One of our most under-rated singers, Janice Watson has a rich-toned and powerful soprano and great acting ability. Her Katya, caught between deep religious feeling and the need for a comforting personal love, is deeply affecting and beautifully sung.

Felicity Palmer is characteristically formidable, making the pantomime witch Kabanicha totally believable. Two American tenors – Chris Merritt as the dithering husband and Kurt Streit as Katya’s all too short-lived lover – both excel. Swedish mezzo Linda Tuvas(Varvara) gets to enjoy a long and very credible kiss with the third tenor Toby Spence (Vána) and they both bring youth and a little brightness to this dark and sombre tale.

Trevor Nunn‘s 1994 production (here revived by Andrew Sinclair), with live horses and collapsing set, stands up well. Katya says she feels as though she’s being pulled into an abyss and, in contrast to her flights of fancy, Maria Björnsen‘s monochrome Munch-like streaks of sky meld into the muddy ground, reflecting the downward pull of her oppressive life.

An excellent cast and great conductor make this a must-see, the best evening at Covent Garden in a while, and what must surely be one of the last performances of this opera that Mackerras will conduct.

To read our interview with Toby Spence, click here

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