Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Katya Kabanova review – the river runs deep

22 June 2024

Stormy Russian drama unfolds in West Horsley.

Katya Kabanova

Susan Bullock, Adrian Thompson & Natalya Romaniw (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Janáček wrote of Katya Kabanova that the work would be “one of my most tender”, and his compassion for his heroine is what makes this opera so emotionally involving. Grange Park Opera has cast it from strength, and the Gascoigne Orchestra under Stephen Barlow play as though their lives depended on it, which is exactly what’s needed for this intense score.

The role of Katya is one of many which Natalya Romaniw seems born to play, and she invests it with all her passionate ardour and fervent commitment. In the midst of her restrictive and stultifying community, she alone has the mercurial quality which manifests itself in her dreams and visions, not of a comfortable life but of something transcendent and magical. It’s a pity that those dreams find their focus in the ineffectual person of Boris, well sung here by Thomas Atkins. This Katya seems to have some love left for her hapless Tichon, which astonishes given how much he is dependent upon his ghastly mother.

Tichon is wonderfully depicted by Adrian Thompson, who sings with his customary crisp diction and musicality, and the role of his mother is superbly taken by Susan Bullock, whose characterisation of the stiff, unwavering, brutal Kabanicha dominates the stage. Clive Bayley’s Dikoj is yet another of his superb assumptions of horrible old men, and Benjamin Hulett contrasts with him as a very empathetic Kudrjas. Katie Bray is a warmly sympathetic Varvara, and the love between her and Kudrjas is affectingly shown as that easy compatibility which was so sadly lacking both in the composer’s life and that of his major characters.

“…the Gascoigne Orchestra under Stephen Barlow play as though their lives depended on it…”

Katya Kabanova

Natalya Romaniw & Thomas Atkins (Photo: Marc Brenner)

The smaller parts were all convincingly taken, with Jennifer Statham’s Glasa noteworthy, and the chorus depicted the downtrodden and judgmental villagers with conviction. As with the central singers, they had to negotiate one of those inexplicably sloping sets, which are presumably intended to convey the dislocation of village and family life.

David Alden’s production is strong on character development and motivation, but less successful in demonstrating the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Kabanova household, given that the set is one of those bleak jobs in which the personages have to bring on their own chairs, and even in this case hang up their own pictures. The Volga, of which Janáček wrote that “It seems to me that even when a motif rises up threateningly, it has its germ in the still, dreaming waters” is vaguely indicated, although somehow Natalya Romaniw made it seem real when she flung herself into its depths.

Katya’s ardent recollections of her youthful visionary states and her despairing, heart-rending final moments were captured with unrestrained fervour by Romaniw and played with deeply affecting emotion by this excellent orchestra, which also relished the grim foreboding before the storm and its shattering conclusion.

• Details of upcoming performances can be found here.

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