David Alden's production of Katya Kabanova at the English National Opera – co-produced with Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, Lisbon and Teatr Wielki-Opera Narodowa, Warsaw – has been greatly anticipated and was enthusiastically received by the first night audience. The success was well deserved, as there was a lot of excellent singing and orchestral playing on display. Nevertheless, I for one am not convinced about this production's interpretation of Janáček's great masterpiece.
Performing this opera without a break does not seem to be justified. Janáček clearly specified three acts and, indeed, the synopsis in ENO's programme notes is shown in three acts. I could understand a continuous performance, if the story line unfolded in one evening or at least in one day. But the length of time between the beginning and the conclusion in the libretto's plot contradicts the through-performance.
Katya Kabanova is a dark tale and Alden definitely shows the darkness. The stage is depressingly bare and mostly dark throughout the evening. When there is some light, it is used mostly to create shadows on the bare wall. This is effective and meaningful at times but it contradicts both music and text on some other occasions. For instance, I am puzzled about the shadows at the beginning of the second scene in Act Two, where Katya talks about her happy childhood as well as about her sinful dreams of love to Varvara. Passion and lyricism are abundant in Janáček's score but there is also plenty of humour which is usually manifested in folk song style. Alden's staging negates the folk elements and, furthermore, it ignores the contrast which the village (that is, nature) provides to the darkness of the main plot.
Alden tends to lean towards horror and the vulgar, when one could argue for light relief. In Act One, the exchange between Boris and his mean uncle Dikoy could have been shown with more humour and less horror, even though admittedly Boris has nothing to laugh about. Some of Kabanicha's music towards the end of the Act One repeats earlier light folk motives, yet she is portrayed only as a powerful figure: we cannot laugh at her even when the music does. Humour crept in when it was surely not intended. There is almost total darkness on stage, when – at the beginning of Act Two – Katya takes the stolen key from Varvara and says: 'how I wish it was night'. I am not certain, that – towards the end of Act Two – the charming folk music of Varvara and Kudriash warrant rolling over each other, but here Alden could insist this is what folk do when they go to the river.
I am puzzled by the huge billboard showing the devil and a word in Russian in Act Three. According to my reading of the Russian symbols, the word is Prokljat (which means damned). Why are Russian symbols displayed for an English performance with English subtitles? This billboard took away the impact from the arguably humorous exchange about the lightening rod, and then it crashed to earth leaving me even more puzzled: would this mean the fall of damnation (even though the story line ended with tragedy)?
On the positive side, the singers were magnificent and the orchestra rose to the challenge of Janáček's score.
American soprano Patricia Racette, making her ENO debut, is a deeply moving Katya; her pure but powerful voice is ideally suited to the role. The excellent tenor Stuart Skelton made the most of Alden characterisation of Boris, but I would have preferred a more dashing (and less tentative) seducer. In this interpretation there is not enough difference between Katya's husband Tikhon (dominated by his mother) and Katya's lover Boris (dominated by his uncle): why would Katya fall so deeply in love and into subsequent tragedy with a man similar to her husband? Perhaps Janáček (too) is at fault for creating tenor roles both for jilted husband and spineless lover? John Graham-Hall turned in a virtuoso performance as the unfortunate husband. The parts of the contrasting pair of lovers Varvara (mezzo soprano Anna Grevelius) and Kudriash (tenor Alfie Boe) were delightfully sung and acted, although I preferred the less forthright concept of Varvara's character in other productions. Bass Clive Bayley portrayed Dikoy – clearly following Alden's direction – as totally heartless and sexually masochistic, but he managed to sing (even crawling on his stomach) magnificently.
Mark Wigglesworth brought out all the lyricism and passion of Janáček's music, but – as with so many conductors whom I have heard in the past – he failed to grasp the tight rhythm of the folk music elements. I admit that I was spoiled on my first encounter with Katya Kabanova back in 1974: Charles Mackerras conducted at the English National Opera and I have not heard anything like it ever since (except with Sir Charles again). Listen to Sir Charles' rhythm if and when you can, but – in the meantime – there is wonderful singing and orchestral playing to be enjoyed in ENO's current production.
By Agnes Kory
Photo Credits: Clive Barda