Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Katya Kabanova

Leoš Janácek
English Touring Opera
Everyman, Cheltenham, and touring
(2009)

Production photo

It may not send you out of the theatre whistling but Katya Kabanova is a powerful piece of drama which deserves to be seen more often. Having caught it in the same week as Cheek by Jowl's equally harrowing staging of Racine's Andromaque I was struck by some of the similarities they shared,

The opera is Janácek's sixth and marks the onset of his mature development, what the former author and journalist Max Brod called the composer's 'ripe fruit,' showing a tightness and unity of construction and music of 'pure feeling'.

In order to heighten the drama and focus attention on the plight of the heroine Janácek 'savagely' edits and compresses the play from which it is adapted, as Tchaikovsky did with Eugene Onegin and Racine with his source material. This has the consequence of blurring some of the relationships and rendering gnomic some of what is said, but the benefits to the sense of drama are great.

And as with Andromaque, the elliptical nature of the work concentrates attention on the plight of the central eponymous character who cuts a tragic and impotent figure. Katya is trapped in a loveless marriage to a weak-willed drunkard, made more wretched by her mother-in-law. When love arrives, in the form of Boris Grigorevich, it brings joy but ultimately too sorrow and death.

Unlike Andromaque, however, the range of the opera extends beyond a study in pain and helplessness. True, the storm brings 'love against one's will', but Janácek celebrates tenderness and ecstasy first glimpsed as Katya recounts her rapturous vision in church as a child. As Brod notes, "Here the horn enters and the woodwinds slowly begin to span their giant musical arch over its melody; surely this moment should bring tears to the eyes of anyone sensible to music". This note of ecstasy re-enters with the double love scene of Act II Scene II with Katya's and Boris' love music heard in the distance and against the more earthbound chatter of the other two lovers, Varvara and Kudruyash.

The production, which is directed by James Conway, is exemplary and is well-suited to the sort of more intimate venues visited by ETO. The action takes place against a scored, cross-hatched background - suggesting perhaps a web? - with a raked wooden stage which allows the insertion of interior walls for the scenes in the Kabanov house and their removal for the outdoor scenes.

The singing and acting is also of an impressively-high standard. Fiona Kimm as Marfa Kabanova, the widowed mother of Katya's husband, is frightening. Colin Judson is suitably helpless as Marfa's son, Trichon, and there's strong support too from Jane Harrington's impulsive Varvara and especially Sion Goronwy as the merchant Dikoy, a big brute of a man. At the centre is a terrific performance from Linda Richardson as Katya. Full credit too to the conductor Michael Rosewell whose limited forces provide sterling support.

This year's productions - Katya is accompanied by a new staging of The Magic Flute and a concert performance of Norma - mark the company's thirtieth anniversary. Long may it continue to bring opera to the regions.

Reviewer: Pete Wood