Monday, 17 July 2017

Strong ensemble & intense drama: Janacek's Kat'a Kabanova at Opera Holland Park

Julia Sporsén as Káťa and members of the OHP Chorus in Opera Holland Park’s production of Káťa Kabanová, directed by Olivia Fuchs © Robert Workman
Julia Sporsén as Káťa and members of the OHP Chorus in Opera Holland Park’s production of Káťa Kabanová, directed by Olivia Fuchs (Photo © Robert Workman)
Janacek Kat'a Kabanova; Julia Sporsen, Peter Hoare, Anne Mason, Nicky Spence, Clare Presland, Paul Curievici, Mikhail Svetlov, dir: Olivia Fuchs, cond: Sian Edwards; Opera Holland Park
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 13 2017
Star rating: 4.5

The tensions of small-town life, in Janacek's powerfully claustrophobic drama

Julia Sporsén as Káťa and members of the OHP Chorus in Opera Holland Park’s production of Káťa Kabanová, directed by Olivia Fuchs © Robert Workman
Julia Sporsén and OHP Chorus in Opera Holland Park’s production
of Káťa Kabanová, directed by Olivia Fuchs © Robert Workman
We don't see nearly enough of Janacek's Kat'a Kabanova, English National Opera last performed it in 2010 whilst at Covent Garden it was last seen in 20007 and at Glyndebourne in 2002. Thankfully Opera Holland Park has revived its 2009 production of Kat'a Kabanova directed by Olivia Fuchs with designs by Yannis Thavoris, movement by Clare Whistler and lighting by Colin Grenfell. Sian Edwards conducted the City of London Sinfonia with Julia Sporsen as Kat'a, Peter Hoare as Boris, Anne Mason as Kabanicha, Nicky Spence as Tichon, Clare Presland as Varvara, Paul Curievici as Kudrjas, and Mikhail Svetlov as Dikoj.

Creating the right sense of small-town claustrophobia in Opera Holland Park's wide open spaces is quite tricky. Fuchs and Thavoris solved this by covering the stage with azure blue colour for the Volga River, and confining the characters to wooden walkways crossing the water. There were just two acting areas, a bed of reeds with a seat stage left, and a circular platform stage right. This latter formed the Kabanova's house in the first half, surrounded by a movable mesh half-screen which again brought a feeling of claustrophobia. And within these spaces, Fuchs regularly had the chorus spilling across, peering, prying, spying and generally intimidating. In one magical moment, during Boris and Kat'a's Act Two duet Boris (Peter Hoare) walks off the walkway into the 'water', and eventually  Kat'a (Julia Sporsen) joins him. This sense of escaping via water created a powerful resonance through the remainder of the opera.


Peter Hoare as Boris and Julia Sporsén as Káťa in Opera Holland Park’s production of Káťa Kabanová, directed by Olivia Fuchs © Robert Workman

Peter Hoare, Julia Sporsén (Photo © Robert Workman)
Our first sight of Julia Sporsen's Kat'a was weaving her way through the throng of people, intimidated by her public appearance with her mother-in-law (Anne Mason) and husband (Nicky Spence), yet fascinated by the water of the Volga. Intense and bird-like, the images of flight which come into Janacek's libretto seemed to imbue Sporsen's movements and she was very much like a wounded bird. Nervous yet intense and vividly alive even when constrained not to move, this was a remarkable performance which grew throughout the evening. Sporsen has been singing lyric roles (Violetta, Pamina, Micaela, Gilda) and gave a lovely fluid account of the role, but her voice had just the right amount of spinto ping to it, giving just the right amount of power.

Kat'a is very much defined by her relations with others. The incredibly tense scene where Anne Mason's rigid Kabanicha insisted Tichon (Nicky Spence) school his wife in how to behave when he was away, in which Fuchs used lack of movement and rigidity as much as  movement to bring out the tensions in the family. The scene for Kat'a and Clare Presland's delightful Varvara, where the latter was finely unnerved by Sporsen's Kat'a wanting to be a bird. And of course, the glorious double duet which concludes Act Two, where the tense and nervous start of Kat'a and Boris' duet showed Sporsen and Hoare at their intense best, expanding into a gorgeous lyricism whose over intensity boded no good for the relationship. In the final scenes, this lyricism veered into neurosis and Sporsen's solo was profoundly moving. Perhaps it did not sear quite as much as it can, but then that sort of intensity is difficult to bring off in Holland Park's wide open spaces.

Paul Curievici as Kudrjaš and Clare Presland as Varvara in Opera Holland Park’s production of Káťa Kabanová, directed by Olivia Fuchs © Robert Workman
Paul Curievici, Clare Presland (Photo © Robert Workman)
Clare Presland made a wonderful contrast as Varvara, a complex free-spirit who had her own goals and who had the self-confidence to achieve them. This was a far more subtle portrait than the simple soubrette, and Presland was well partnered by Paul Curievici's intelligent, nerd-ish yet sexy Kudrjas, and their duet during Act Two was a complete delight, complementing that of Sporsen and Hoare.

One of the fascinations of this production, where director, movement director and conductor were all women, was that though there was immense sympathy for the female characters the male ones had a depth to them too. This was particularly true of Nicky Spence's Tichon, a complete change from his recent portrayals of Steva in Jenufa at English National Opera and Grange Park Opera. The pull between his wife and his mother-in-law seemed to have paralysed Tichon, Spence's body language was all awkward rigidity and any drama made him freeze (and grab his hip-flask). The final scene in Act Two between him and Sporsen was wonderful in the way they suggested the intensity of the relationship and the sheer impossibility of it too, along with hints (taken from the opera) that Tichon is impotent.

Anne Mason as Kabanicha in Opera Holland Park’s production of Káťa Kabanová, directed by Olivia Fuchs © Robert Workman

Anne Mason (Photo © Robert Workman)
Over all this, Kabanicha needs to dominate and Anne Mason radiated rigid control and a powerful concern for appearances from the moment sheer appeared in Act One. In terms of body language and personenregie, this was a stunning performance creating an intensely visceral character by doing very little, just using a repertoire of powerfully communicative gestures. Mason's voice, though, did not always have the whiplash necessary to dominate over the orchestra, and we sometimes relied too much on the extra-musical gestures for the total effect. But this is the sort of balance issue which will bed in as the run develops.

Mikhail Svetlov was a wonderfully awful Dikoj, the scene between him and Mason's Kabanicha comic yet disturbing. The smaller characters were all characterful with Laura Woods and Polly Leech as the servants Glasa and Feklusa, (small but important roles), Ross Ramgobin as Kudrjash's friend Kuligin, Ayaka Tanimoto as Zena and Michael Bradley as the boatman, all contributing to the sense of a strongly-knit community and of course the chorus formed an oppressively ever-present backdrop for the drama.

Nicky Spence as Tichon, Anne Mason as Kabanicha, Clare Presland as Varvara, Julia Sporsén as Káťa, Laura Woods as Glaša and Polly Leech as Fekluša in Opera Holland Park’s production of Káťa Kabanová, directed by Olivia Fuchs © Robert Workman
Nicky Spence as Tichon, Anne Mason as Kabanicha, Clare Presland as Varvara, Julia Sporsén as Káťa, Laura Woods as Glaša and Polly Leech as Fekluša in Opera Holland Park’s production of Káťa Kabanová, directed by Olivia Fuchs
(Photo© Robert Workman)
The lack of a pit makes Janacek's large orchestra and rich orchestration a bit problematical and Sian Edwards trod a nice line between expressive power and simply being a traffic policewoman. There was the odd moment of unevenness in the orchestra (and the parts are challenging), and we had some acoustic issues so we heard rather more of the horns than was perhaps desirable. But overall Edwards and the orchestra gave us a powerful and colourful account of Janacek's brilliant score without overwhelming the singers. Thunder was used in the storm scene, but it was unfortunate that one particularly loud crack coincided with an important statement of the motto theme on the timpani.


This was very much a strong, ensemble performance creating a real sense of the intensity of Janacek's drama.

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