Katya Kabanova – Janacek – Royal Opera House
Born in 1854, Leos Janacek was a Czech Composer whose music was inspired by Slavic folk music and contemporaries such as Dvorak. Although his first opera, Jenufa (dedicated to the memory of his young daughter) was first performed in 1904 in the city of Brno, it wasn’t until a revised version of Jenufa was performed in Prague in 1916 that Janacek first received great acclaim - at the age of 62. A year later he met a young married woman (38 years his junior), who inspired him for the remaining years of his life, until his death in 1928.
Brno’s National Theatre was the place for the premiere of perhaps his greatest opera, Katya Kabanova. The work was dedicated to his new love. This opera has undergone many changes and was finally re-orchestrated by Sir Charles Mackerras, who published a critical addition of the opera in 1992.
The story about Katya, whose mother-in-law tries to control her every movement and who eventually escapes this control by having an affair and killing herself, is incredibly dramatic. Much of Janacek’s music displays great originality and individuality. It employs a vastly expanded view of tonality. Sir Charles Mackerras called Janacek the first minimalist composer using tiny swift motifs with remarkably characteristic rhythms that pepper the musical flow.
In Richard Jones’s new production for the Royal Opera House, he was fortunate to have a Conductor of the outstanding quality of Edward Gardner, as well as a fresh young cast, who threw themselves vividly and emotionally into their roles. In this outstanding and passionately charged evening the production, music and singing came together in a concerted manner that left the audience wanting to understand more of the mystery of Amanda Majeski’s Katya characterisation, her need to expose her adultery and her subsequent death.
Richard Jones’s clever direction is at the heart of the evening’s one and three quarter hours of action, only spoilt by an unnecessary intermission before the final half hour. Whilst the action had been updated to the 1960/70s, it was the clever way that the sets, designed by Antony McDonald, moved around the stage, producing a 3 sided wooden box effect, from which Katya seemed incapable of escape. Sung by the pure voiced American soprano, Amanda Majeski, whose soaring vocal instrument has real warmth and richness as she commands the stage, particularly in her duets with her lover, Boris, matchingly sung by the Czech deep toned tenor of Pavel Cernoch.
The tenor, Andrew Staples, who sung Katya’s supressed husband, Tichon, was never strong enough to deal with his mother’s domination. Perhaps this is unsurprising given Susan Bickley’s grand interpretation of a stereotypical nasty mother-in-law, who will always be the enemy of her son’s delightful wife. However, Bickley enjoys her own rendezvous with her merchant lover Dikoj, sung by the wonderful deep bass of Clive Bayley.
The Australian former Jette Parker soprano, Emily Edmonds, sung a light, but sweet interpretation of Katya’s temptress, Varvara, opposite her geeky lover, sung by the English tenor, Andrew Tortise. Dominic Sedgwick, who is currently participating in the Jette Parker Young Artists programme, was a well sung Kuligin.
But, it was Edward Gardner, together with his orchestra and chorus, who gave the outstanding interpretation of the evening’s musical output. In his long-awaited debut with the ROH, this former ENO Music Director gave an energetic and at times electric delivery of the music, with beautifully detailed phrasing on a score that is outrageously complex. The music from Gardner always complimented the performance on stage.
A note also for the lighting of Lucy Carter, whose pointed lighting interpretation when the lovers first meet together with their swaying, reminded us of Jones’s Rosenkavalier Rose scene at Glyndebourne.
But, it was Amanda Majeski’s Katya who really stole the show with her interpretation. She realised as she was given the key to her escape – ‘Here is my doom’ – that she was spiralling on a downward journey, unable to save herself, even as she repeatedly failed to gain entry to her leaving husband’s car. Thus she was left at the mercy of the evil mother-in-law and subsequent death.
An outstandingly thought provoking evening.