Amanda Majeski is heartbreaking as Janáček’s doomed heroine.
Janáček’s searing opera, based on Ostrovsky’s play, The Storm, has been an integral part of Simon Rattle’s repertoire for many years. Indeed, the first time I heard him conduct Katya Kabanova was in 1985 at the English National Opera – his first, and last appearances with the company. His impassioned conducting, and the thrilling playing of the orchestra left an indelible impression on me, and played a vital role in developing my burgeoning love for the Czech composer’s operas.
Fast forward almost 40 years, and Rattle was once again on the podium, leading a coruscating performance, but this time with his London Symphony Orchestra forces, and a cast that could hardly be bettered today. Billed as a concert performance, the actual evening resembled more of a hemi-demi-semi-staging. Although all the singers were ‘on the book’, they had to navigate a row of music stands as they made their way from the side of the platform where they were stationed when not singing, to the front of the orchestra, and after a while this constant moving around became distracting. Similarly, having the LSO Choir file on, and stand on the stairs either side of the Stalls to sing their brief interjections during the storm, then shuffle off again, was far from ideal. Those, however, are the only niggles that could be directed at this sublime evening of music making.
As the strings, barely audible to begin with, ushered in the opening bars, followed by those menacing strikes on the timpani, it was clear that we were in for an unforgettable night. Rattle’s approach may not be as brittle and sinewy as that of the late great, Janáček conductor Charles Mackerras, but he gets to the heart of the work, and leaves no musical stone unturned. The opera is relatively short – an hour and forty minutes – but there’s not a single superfluous note in the score. Dramatically taut, and musically inventive, Rattle made sure every note and phrase struck home with unflinching power.
“…Rattle was once again on the podium, leading a coruscating performance…”
One of the benefits of a concert performance is that every musical line comes across with crystal-like clarity. Being able to ‘see’ Janáček’s unique sound world as well as hear it was a revelation. Rasping horns, shrill woodwind, ominous brass – all these orchestral effects combined to shattering effect. The playing from all sections of the LSO was beyond reproach.
As the opera’s protagonist, Amanda Majeski was heartbreaking. Having performed the role in the Royal Opera’s 2019 staging so memorably, it came as no surprise that she was equally engaging here. Trapped in a loveless marriage to Tichon, and despised by her mother-in-law, Kabanicha, it’s no surprise that Katya looks elsewhere for love. Majeski embraces every facet of the character from the start, and sings magnificently throughout. Gleaming top notes, combined with a rich, resonant chest voice make this a remarkable and unforgettable assumption of one of Janáček’s most tragic heroines.
As her husband, Tichon, Andrew Staples was masterly in portraying the character’s weakness without sacrificing vocal heft, while Simon O’Neill’s trumpeting tones gave Katya’s lover, Boris, the power and ardour that was required. Soprano turned mezzo, Katarina Dalayman spat out Janáček’s angular vocal lines venomously – leaving no one in doubt that Kabanicha is one of the most despicable characters in all opera. Magdalena Kožená was luxurious casting as Vavara, and as the only native Czech speaker in the cast sang gloriously and idiomatically throughout. She was ably partnered by Ladislav Elgr as Kudrjas, whose bright ringing tone contrasted nicely with Kožená’s rich mezzo. Pavlo Hunka replaced an indisposed John Tomlinson, so it was a relief to hear the role actually sung rather than barked.
Luckily this performance (and the one two days later) were recorded for the LSO’s own label for future release. There are already several fine recordings of this operatic masterpiece in the catalogue, but no lover of Janáček, or opera in general, should be without this one.