Thursday 7 February 2019

In the hell of a small town: Kat'a Kabanova at the Royal Opera

Janacek: Kat'a Kabanova - Susan Bickley, Amanda Majeski, Andrew Staples - Royal Opera House (Photo ROH/Clive Barda)
Janacek: Kat'a Kabanova - Susan Bickley, Amanda Majeski, Andrew Staples - Royal Opera House
(Photo ROH/Clive Barda)
Janacek Kat'a Kabanova; Amanda Majeski, Pavel Cernoch, Andrew Staples, Susan Bickley, Clive Bayley, Emily Edmonds, Andrew Tortise, dir: Richard Jones, cond: Edward Gardner; Royal Opera, Covent Garden  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 6 February 2019 
Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A bleak and concentrated new production showcases some powerful, musical performances

The Royal Opera, Covent Garden's first production of Janacek's Kat'a Kabanova was not until 1994, over 70 years after the work's premiere. Trevor Nunn's production was last seen in 2007, and has now been superceded by a new production by Richard Jones which is part of Covent Garden's on-going cycle of Janacek operas, following on from Krzysztof Warlikowski's staging of From the House of the Dead in 2018 [see my review].

We caught the second performance in the run of Janacek's Kat'a Kabanova, 6 February 2019, directed by Richard Jones, desgined by Antony McDonald and conducted by Edward Gardner (his main stage debut at Covent Garden), with Amanda Majeski as Kat'a, Pavel Cernoch as Boris, Andrew Staples as Tichon, Emily Edmonds as Varvara, Susan Bickley as Kabanicha, Clive Bayley as Dikoj and Andrew Tortise as Kudrjas.

Jones and McDonald have transported the action of the opera forward to the 1960s, and from the very beginning the sense of the people of the town watching and prying on Majeski's Kat'a is important, even staring through the windows at her. Every so often, throughout the action, people stream onto the stage and torment Kat'a. But despite McDonald's costumes (including some wicked 1960s gear and wig for Andrew Tortise's Kudrjas) the production has little sense of place or locale. Much of the action takes place in a bare box with hidden doors, are we in a real town or are we in Kat'a's mind?

Janacek: Kat'a Kabanova - Amanda Majeski, Susan Bickley - Royal Opera House (Photo ROH/Clive Barda)
Janacek: Kat'a Kabanova - Amanda Majeski, Susan Bickley - Royal Opera House (Photo ROH/Clive Barda)
Where we do see scenic details, the interior of the Kavanov's house, the bus shelter (not church) which forms the setting for the opening of Act Three and notably the front of the Kabanov's house which forms the setting for the trysts at the end of Act Two, they reminded me not so much of Russia (the setting of Ostrovsky's original play) as of Clacton, except that the car used at the end of Act One is a genuine Russian car. Is Jones saying that hell is a small town anywhere?

Amanda Majeski's Kat'a was an intense creature, all jerky movements and apt to seize up at any time, completely wound up and never relaxed, almost full of nervous tics. But then none of the characters was naturalistic, Susan Bickley's controlled and controlling mother-in-law from hell Kabanicha has a breakdown after Kat'a suicide, Andrew Staples' Tichon is a functioning alcoholic, Pavel Cernoch's Boris is a nervy, controlled creature who rarely relaxes, and Clive Bayley's Dikoj is borderline psychotic. Only Emily Edmonds Varvara and Andrew Tortise's Kudrjas seem in any way normal. Is Jones saying something about small town life (very much as David Alden was doing in his production of Britten's Peter Grimes at ENO where all the inhabitants of the Borough were strangely odd). Or are we in Kat'a mind, is this happening at all?

Janacek: Kat'a Kabanova - Andrew Staples, Susan Bickley, Amanda Majeski,  Pavel Cernoch- Royal Opera House (Photo ROH/Clive Barda)
Janacek: Kat'a Kabanova - Andrew Staples, Susan Bickley, Amanda Majeski,  Pavel Cernoch- Royal Opera House
(Photo ROH/Clive Barda)
One aspect of the production rather weakens the dramaturgy of Janacek's original, there is no sense of religion in this town, the pressure on Kat'a is entirely social and societal.  Even the setting for the crucial storm scene has been changed to a bus shelter, and the frescoes of sinners burning in hell reduced to graffiti.

Amanda Majeski gave an astonishing performance as Kat'a, intense and highly concentrated. Her nervy behaviour was paired with a finely musical account of the role in which Majeski's voice cut laser-like through the textures. With the production's concentration on Kat'a and her gut wrenching internalising of the pressures on her, this was a very specific account of the role but a terrific one. Though I have to confess, that I found things sagged somewhat during the final scenes. Majeski is a lyric soprano who seems to be moving into the jugend dramatisch territory, and she brought just the right amount of heft and flexibility to the role, making this Kat'a seem vulnerably young whilst dominating the orchestra effortlessly.

Andrew Staples made a sympathetic Tichon, much put upon by his mother but eliciting our sympathy too, his feelings for Kat'a coming through his weakness. By contrast Pavel Cernoch's Boris seemed rather controlled and self-contained, wary of letting too much show and only in the glorious duet with Majeski's Kat'a at the end of Act Two did you get a sense of what the two unleashed together.

Susan Bickley is very much making the role of Kabanicha her own, and here she was on terrific form. Intensely controlled and controlling, this Kabanicha used very little movement yet the whiplash in her voice kept everyone doing just what she wanted, whether it was Kat'a or Clive Bayley's Dikoj, Bickley's scene with Dikoj was disturbing in the way the two singers allowed us a glimpse of the relationship with anything seeming to happen.

Janacek: Kat'a Kabanova - Andrew Tortise, Emily Edmonds - Royal Opera House (Photo ROH/Clive Barda)
Janacek: Kat'a Kabanova - Andrew Tortise, Emily Edmonds - Royal Opera House (Photo ROH/Clive Barda)
The relationship between Varvara and Kudrjas is used as a musical and dramatic contrast to that of Kat'a and Boris. Lively and teasing, Emily Edmonds and Andrew Tortise made a delightful couple with Edmonds being a real spirit of chaos in this controlling society. As Kudras, Tortise brought out the feeling of quotation marks in Kudras' use of folk-song, and this added to the didactic sense of the character with his disquisition on lightening rods!

The smaller roles were well cast, with Sarah Pring as Glasa and Dominic Sedgwick as a bicycle riding Kulgin. And the chorus with thrilling in their sounds and disturbing in the ubiquity of their presence.

Edward Gardner drew a very fine performance of Janacek's score from the Royal Opera House orchestra, and if I have doubts about the production then I have no doubt about the musical values and it seems a shame that it has taken so long for Gardner to be asked to conduct in the main house. Certainly catching the broadcast of this on BBC Radio 3 would seem a must.

Janacek: Kat'a Kabanova - Andrew Staples, Amanda Majeski  - Royal Opera House (Photo ROH/Clive Barda)
Janacek: Kat'a Kabanova - Andrew Staples, Amanda Majeski  - Royal Opera House (Photo ROH/Clive Barda)
Janacek's Kat'a Kabanova is a strong piece, able to take a variety of interpretations. And the joy of this production was the way Jones and Gardner had drawn such an intense, musical account of the score from all concerned.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Through an Eastern filter: Nathan Davis' striking dance-opera Hagoromo (★★½) - CD review
  • A very modern spectacle: Ponchielli's La Gioconda at La Monnaie  in Brussels (★★) - opera review
  • Engaging first thoughts: A reconstruction of Mozart and De Ponte's initial ideas for Cosi fan tutte (★★) - CD review
  • Strong, muscular yet tender and very direct: Haydn's The Seven Last Words of Christ alongside Colm Tóibín's The Testament of Mary (★★★★) - concert review
  • Semele and beyond: Harry Bickett talks about the English Concert's latest Handel opera tour  - my interview
  • Of arms and a woman: Blondel late medieval wind music inspired by Christine de Pisan (★★½) - CD review
  • 1769: a year in music from Ian Page & The Mozartists  (★★★★) - Concert review 
  • Requiem Masses for murdered royalty: HerveNiquet & Le Concert Spirituel in Requiems for King Louis XVI & Queen Marie Antoinette by Cherubini & by Plantade (★★★) - concert review
  • In transcription: Berlioz arranged Liszt and Richard Strauss arranged Willner at Conway Hall (★★★★)  - concert review
  • A powerful journey: Sir Colin Davis complete live Berlioz recordings on LSO Live  - CD review
  • Faure's Requiem from the Schola Cantorum of Cardinal Vaughan School (★★★) - CD review
  • Home

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