Katya Kabanova

Leoš Janáček
Opera North
Leeds Grand Theatre
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Tim Albery’s production of Janáček’s 1921 opera was first mounted by Opera North in 2007. Now, over ten years later, it is revived as part of a season of works originally premièred around the time of the First World War.

Madama Butterfly, itself staged last year by the Leeds-based company, was a partial influence for Janáček’s tragedy of an unhappy wife seeking love and freedom. The remarkable, contained passion of the piece is all the more astonishing given its basis in the composer’s own unhappy marriage and unrequited love for Kamila Stösslová, also married and nearly forty years his junior.

Katya Kabanova’s confinement is evoked in this production by the drab Edwardian costume and hefty walls of the home she shares with her husband Tichon and, more to the point, her domineering mother-in-law Kabanicha.

The mood of enclosure and constraint is echoed also in the controlled performances of all the leads. In the title role, Stephanie Corley is wonderfully minimal in her movement, her crisp gestures emphasising the lack of freedom she feels as Kabanicha lays down the law for her and the ineffectual Tichon (Andrew Kennedy).

Stephen Richardson gives a pleasingly severe performance as the rich, moralising Dikoy, Boris’s uncle and the grave, bass voice of the self-made—and self-satisfied—merchant class. Heather Shipp sings the similarly buttoned-up role of Kabanicha with a pursed, proper power, too.

It is a pleasure to see and hear mezzo-soprano Katie Bray again, in the lightest role of the piece, that of Varya, a fellow sufferer in the Kabanov household who has already found her release in the arms of Vanya Kudryash (Alexander Sprague). This pair tempt Katya away from any moral qualms she has about embarking on a similar affair with Boris (Harold Meers).

At its best, this performance conjures well the thrill of an incipient affair, as in the tantalising silence when Katya and Boris first see each other alone, eyes locking before the score takes up again. Meers and Corley both sing with great clarity, evoking the pair’s almost-tamed, untried passion. Corley’s collapse into self-torturing, and her portrayal of Kabanova’s imploding confessional, is all the more moving for the slow and measured build-up she gives the character.

Hildegard Bechtler’s set and costume design is austere and imposing; even the glimpse of freedom, in the form of the tree which is visible in each of the earlier acts, is dully green and ghostly. Like Kabanova’s love for Boris, it’s more a mirage than a true liberation. Peter Mumford’s beautiful lighting design picks out figures against the blurring prison of the backdrop and doors too are given particular prominence.

While the set transforms between each scene and provides a strong sense of atmosphere and place, it is not as ingenious as, for instance, the geometric screens and ramps Bechtler created for the aforementioned Madama Butterfly. There seemed also to be lengthy and noisy set changes occurring behind the curtain in between acts, which disrupted the flow and intensity of the drama a little.

Janáček’s style takes some getting used to, and the conversational rhythms, based on the flows of colloquial Czech that he heard on the streets around him, are not the most accessible of compositions. Sian Edwards conducts an impressive orchestral performance, though, with the opening of the first act in particular, as well as occasional motifs drawing on folk music, highlighting the broad palette of the score and the characterful playing of the orchestra.

Another motif appears to have been set up in this production, whereby at a couple of moments characters turn to the audience during orchestral swells, seemingly to utter something inaudible out towards us or to each other. It is an enigmatic, tantalising tribute to Janáček which hints at both the intimate and conversational tone evoked by his music and the personal, hidden and inscrutable depths behind this passionate tragedy.

Mark Smith