This production of Katya Kabanova is the second in the Royal Opera House’s long-awaited Janáček cycle, which began with From the House of the Dead in the 2017-18 season. It’s surprising that this is only the second production of the work at the ROH, and even more so that it marks the main house debut of Edward Gardner, whose impassioned conducting brought forth from the orchestra a level of performance worthy of his great predecessor in the work, Charles Mackerras.
Musically, this was a generally high-level evening, with the playing of the orchestra and the singing of the protagonist the outstanding features. In the pit, the poetic, lyrical passages were given their true weight and depth and the powerfully charged ones pulsed with ferocity. I wrote of the previous production that “It was a pity that the grandeur, emotional depth and delicacy evident from the pit were not replicated throughout the production” and unfortunately this new one is equally lacking – but more of that later.
Amanda Majeski first impressed us with her vulnerable, tender Eva in Glyndebourne’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and with this Katya, she made an auspicious house and role debut. She is presented as not quite the neurotic ninny of the previous production, but a fragile, wounded yet hopeful girl whom, as the composer wrote, “…a breeze would carry away – let alone the storm that gathers over her.” One misses a little richness of tone in the middle register at such impassioned moments as her assertion about feeling that she was entering heaven when in church, but overall this was a sensitive, faithful evocation of one of opera’s most lovable female characters.
Emily Edmonds was making her role debut as Varvara, and despite what she had to deal with at times (lying on a brutalist bench instead of rolling about in a garden) she gave a convincing and stylishly sung performance of this pivotal role. Her lover, Kudrjás was equally persuasive in the person of Andrew Tortise, another role debutant, conveying the character’s idealism although the production deprived him of some of the romance of his later scenes.
The Czech tenor Pavel Černoch was making his ROH debut after having previously sung the role for Norwegian National Opera and Berlin State Opera. Naturally, his diction and inflection were superb, and his singing had plenty of warmth although he appeared as more under his family’s thumb than is usual. Andrew Staples was a solid Tichon – making his role debut in this ungrateful part, he did succeed in arousing some sympathy for his plight. His ghastly mother was sung by the experienced Susan Bickley, who did all she could to show her character’s matriarchal brutality but was hampered by having to scuttle about in a manner inappropriate to such a staunchly dignified woman.
The smaller parts were cast from strength, chief amongst them the Dikoj of Clive Bailey, who seems to have cornered the market in unpleasant operatic men; as ever, he sang magnificently but the sinister nature of his relationship with Kabanicha was barely sketched by the production. Sarah Pring was a warm-toned Glaša, Dominick Sedgwick a convincing Kuligin, and Dervla Ramsay justified her excursion from the ROH Chorus with her Fekluša. That Chorus was superbly trained by William Spaulding and impressed with its unity of sound despite having to carry out much dashing about the stage.
Richard Jones’ production is one of those ‘stripping away’ ones, in that the oppressive atmosphere of the time of the opera’s original setting is exchanged for a 1970s Russian factory town, which seems to be walled with Ikea wardrobes and which offers its lovers only a harshly lit bench to lie on, and its workers a vaguely Art Deco / London Transport circa 1950s shelter when the rain comes down. Instead of the gloomy atmosphere of the family’s sitting room, we have a sort of 1960s-70s backdrop, in which no one gets to have a chair and some of the characters are obliged to sing from the window seat.
The Volga, the music of which pulses through the score and in which the heroine ends her life, is suggested only by a trio of fishermen, and the pivotal storm is a festival of strobe lighting. The powerful influence of Religion is entirely absent, and the notion that someone in this late-ish 20th-century context would be so self-lacerating as to condemn herself to death for adultery seems less than entirely credible. Kabanicha’s final words to those who have dragged her daughter-in-law out of the river should sound like the grimmest of pronouncements, but here they were more like a response to a gift.
Despite all this, Katya Kabanova is one of the greatest operas in the repertoire, and it’s wonderful to hear it so lovingly conducted and finely sung – there are several performances left, with plenty of tickets at modest (for the ROH) prices.