One of the greatest operatic experiences of my life: Royal Opera’s Katya Kabanova reviewed

9 February 2019

9:00 AM

9 February 2019

9:00 AM

Janacek’s upsetting opera Katya Kabanova, which hasn’t been seen in the UK for some time, turned up in two different productions over the weekend, with a third to follow in Scotland.

The Opera North production by Tim Albery dates from 2007, when it was conducted by Richard Farnes with the clarity and passion which characterises all his work. This revival had Sian Edwards making her Opera North debut, and all told it had a slightly muted quality. The paradoxical jagged lyricism of Janacek’s orchestral writing only struck home intermittently, and there were stretches which could almost have been by Smetana, against whom Janacek partly defined himself. Albery’s production and Hildegard Bechtler’s sets remain serviceable and convey the oppressive atmosphere of the work without drawing attention to themselves, with the sombre colours of the natural world contrasting subtly with the gloom of the interiors.

As for the musical performance, I think it will improve during the run. The opening night had stretches of tentative singing, though it was in English — and with side-titles, almost an excess of words. Stephanie Corley has all the notes, but didn’t make as much of them as she will. Heather Shipp as Kabanicha, arguably the most disagreeable figure in the whole of opera, gave a chilling performance which almost had one surprised that Katya didn’t kill herself earlier. The men, of whom Janacek had a uniformly low opinion, are all well taken. A satisfactory evening, but not a great one.

Still, I am writing this review the morning after one of the greatest operatic experiences of my life, so everything so far should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt. The Royal Opera’s new production of Katya, with Richard Jones at his most relevantly inventive, and Edward Gardner conjuring from the orchestra sounds at once precise and glowing with intensity, provided me with a touchstone virtually ensuring that any future account will be a disappointment. I must just get out of the way my annoyance that there is a tension-snapping interval of 25 minutes after Act 2, when the whole opera is less than two hours long. Opera North’s account gained immeasurably by having it played straight through. But everything else about the Royal Opera’s performance was perfect, even miraculous. When a conductor is as great as Gardner you really can tell from the opening bar what the performance is going to be like. Excellent as this orchestra almost always is, they surpassed themselves at every point. The enormous applause that preceded the last act showed that the audience realised something extraordinary was happening.

I hadn’t ever heard, or even heard of,  Amanda Majeski, who performed the title role with a commitment and accuracy that means she should be besieged by the casting moguls of the world. She has a warm, rich tone when it is needed (which is not all that often in Janacek) and as her acting was just as powerful as her singing there was hardly a distinction to be made there. As with Callas and so few other singers, every gesture was dictated by the music.

In the difficult third act, which is mainly a prolonged mad scene — even Janacek couldn’t escape that operatic trope — her repeated attempts at focusing her thoughts followed by semi-coherent realisations that she has failed, convinced me in a way that no other account quite has.  And her grandest outbursts suggest that she is a great Butterfly in the making.

Operatic snobs should remember that Janacek’s inspiration came from the opera he called ‘Baterflay’, with Katya’s entry modelled on Cio-Cio-San’s. The trajectories of the two works are similar, but it’s a crucial test for an opera-lover to realise and articulate why one should be almost the most popular of operas, while the other is still a comparative rarity.

Both are about repression, Puccini’s about colonialism, Janacek’s about stultifying convention and its embodiment in Kabanicha, superbly performed by Susan Bickley, though she overdid the chilling final words of the opera, which should sound like the slamming of a coffin lid. The rest of the cast is uniformly strong, with no one performer standing out, which is as it should be.

Richard Jones is a director whose work I always look forward to, if with trepidation. This is one of his finest efforts. To start with a bare stage, suggesting nothing in particular, then to lower elements of an ultra-bourgeois house, with a car outside that Katya repeatedly gets into and is pulled out of is a very Jonesian moment — comedy in a tug of war with misery.

Nothing distracts from the finely observed 1950s behaviour, everything and everyone on stage and in the orchestra contributing to this shattering raising of the oldest question in aesthetics: why do we find such powerful portrayals of viciousness and torment so captivating?

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