Janacek: Katya Kabanova

Opéra Bastille

Paris, 3 May 2011 2 stars

Why a director like the Swiss Christoph Marthaler is allowed to inflict his zombie-like, excruciatingly dull mises-en-scène on international opera productions is a mystery to me. It is not enough that he tends to place his productions in dull housing works or vacant rooms, or has his characters standing still, sometimes with their fronts or backs against the wall, for masses of time. His spurious modernisations of period pieces is relentless, and invariably they all look alike when he is through with them.

For a piece like Kat’ya Kabanova, which is specifically rooted in the Tsarist Russia of Ostrowski’s play The Storm, Marthaler’s pernicious machinations make little sense. If you read the synopsis, the first act takes place on a river bank—crucial to the story, as Kat’ya will eventually commit suicide there. But not chez Marthaler, who has the heroine go into a small decorative pond (probably not more than six inches deep) on the grounds of the crumbling housing estate in either Czechoslovakia or Russia, in the post-Stalin era.

Marthaler’s other accomplices in this directorial travesty are his usual co-designers, Anna Viebrock and Olaf Winter, who contribute to the dullness. Especially with the non-existent lighting. How this exceedingly flat production found its way to the Garnier is another grotesque puzzle; surely it would be more fitting to have this play in the supermodern open spaces of the Bastille.

This Marthaler production was first done in Salzburg, in 1998, and entered the Paris repertory in 2004. Tomas Nepotil, young and suitably Czech, and who is also the musical director of the National Theatre in Prague, conducted very well, and the singers were excellent—once you divorced them from their physical surroundings. Angela Denoke, born in Hamburg, and now a Kammersängerin at the Staatsoper Vienna, was the exceptionally fine Katya, and she was well supported by the Finnish tenor Jorma Silvasti as her illicit lover, Boris. Other parts were taken by a very good ensemble that included Ales Briscein (Kudriach), Andrea Hill (Varvara), and the Americans Donald Kaasch (Tichon) and Jane Henschel (Kabanicha). Musically, this was an excellent rendition.

I shudder to think what Herr Marthaler did with Offenbach’s La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein in Basel recently, or what he will do with The Makropoulos Affair this summer in Salzburg. Watch out!

By Richard Traubner