Janacek: Kát'a Kabanová

Opera Holland Park

Kensington, London, 30 July 2009 3.5 stars

Kat'a KabanovaOpera Holland Park's return to the music of Janáček with this Kát'a Kabanová has resulted in a triumph almost on the level of their Jenufa in 2007. Musical and dramatic standards are high, with detailed direction, outstanding playing and conducting, and a dazzling star turn from its leading lady coming together in an edge-of-the seat night at the opera.

Indeed, Anne Sophie Duprels' Kát'a is reason enough to see the production, as far as I'm concerned. Vocally, she's absolutely ideal: her strong chest voice  means she can punch out the dramatic scenes to great effect, while her beautiful top notes are great in the climaxes. Dramatically, too, she delivers the goods, communicating how morally torn she is by her love for Boris. She commands the stage whenever she's on it, and never lets up on the intensity in this short but thrilling opera.

Duprels inhabits Olivia Fuchs' staging to perfection. Once more, it's striking how well Fuchs uses the space, in spite of its inherent limitations. The Edwardian costumes and designs (it's updated slightly) by Yannis Thavoris are resourceful, giving Fuchs various platforms to use, as well as a revolving cage-like room to the left of the stage in the first two acts. If it's not particularly subtle, nor is the opera itself, and Fuchs elaborates the drama atmospherically. The Personenregie is noticeably detailed, with most of the singers performing like actors and avoiding stock operatic gestures, and the oppression of both the people in general and Kát'a specifically. Fuchs also depicts the role of nature in this piece very effectively, with spiky cloud-like structures hanging over the stage, tall grass growing to the right hand side and the river flowing between walkways. I don't think OHP could do a better job with their limited resources and shallow stage.

Duprels is matche vocally by Tom Randle's Boris; he sings powerfully and ardently, even if he's not quite on her level as an actor. Anne Mason gives an interesting version of Kabanicha, inspiring fear in all around her but singing the role with a rich tone rather than resorting to semi-shouting in the way that some more senior singers sometimes do, and Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts is reliable as Tichon. Two excellent contributions come from Patricia Orr as Varvara and Andrew Rees as Kudrjáš; the quartet at the end of the second act was a highlight. Richard Angas was his usual committed self as Dikoj, and the remainder of the cast and chorus all move with the same spirit, in spite of a few minor blips.

Under the baton of Stuart Stratford, the City of London Sinfonia played as well as I've ever heard them. Stratford is a wonderfully expressive conductor, accurate and hard-working but entirely self-effacing, and the musicians respond to his every move. And not only was it dramatic, but the reading was full of colour and poignancy, too – I have to confess that it was the orchestral playing that made the evening particularly special for me.

In short, it's an excellent production, cast and crew, and it deserves a bigger audience than it had at the performance I attended. Some tickets remain for the performances on 1, 5 and 7 August, and with prices from £10, it surely makes a bargain alternative to the Proms and the country house opera companies in the regions.

By Dominic McHugh


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