Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Katya Kabanova, English National Opera, 15 March 2010

(sung in English)

The Coliseum

Katerina Kabanova – Patricia Racette
Marfa Kabanicha – Susan Bickley
Varvara – Anna Grevelius
Boris Grigoryevich – Stuart Skelton
Vanya Kudrjas – Alfie Boe
Tikhon Ivanich Kabanov – John Graham-Hall
Dikoy – Clive Bayley
Kuligin – Nicholas Folwell

David Alden (director)
Charles Edwards (set designs)
Jon Morrell (costumes)
Adam Silverman (lighting)
Maxine Braham (movement)

Orchestra and Chorus of the English National Opera
Mark Wigglesworth (conductor)

What a week for Janáček in London, with Katya Kabanova opening here at the Coliseum, and Covent Garden’s revival of The Cunning Little Vixen opening on Friday! It is a pity, both in itself and for the sake of contrast, that the latter will be sung in English, but let us remain with ENO for the moment. One misses the Czech, even if one does not understand it: for music so dependent upon the language’s speech rhythms, it would be vain to pretend that there is not significant loss. The translation employed is on the plain side too. Still, there is far more justification on ENO’s part; opera in the vernacular is, after all, the company’s raison d’être.

David Alden’s powerful Jenůfa for the same company is succeeded by a successful, if not quite unforgettable Katya. There seems to be no particular Konzept, but an approach not significantly different from the earlier production highlights the nasty claustrophobia of the community: vaguely the time of composition, I think, but not distant from the ‘original’ setting. More than once, I thought of Peter Grimes, though Janáček’s opera is of course the superior work. What Alden manages to do is to stress the nature of what is, as ever with Janáček, akin to a spoken play, and to a considerable extent permit the story to tell itself. There is no distracting folksiness, quite out of place in this work; instead, there is a degree of abstraction, for which Charles Edwards’s stunning set designs and Adam Silverman’s equally stunning lighting must receive a great deal of credit. Deep shadows are cast throughout and the contrast between those of Katya and Varvara in the Kabanicha’s house, is telling, likewise the way in which they merge to form a single figure at prayer (even though neither of the characters is praying on stage). The starkness of the sets shading from grey into darkness packs a powerful dramatic punch, even if it means that the house is unfeasibly large and minimalist. The icon on the wall does its job, though, and it is a powerful moment when its owner turns it around, so that it will not see what she is about to get up to with Dikoy: a properly sado-masochistic, alcohol-fuelled relationship with a history, but never wearyingly explicit. Nevertheless, I could not help wondering: is Alden becoming, or has he already become, something of a conservative? Not that it especially matters, but there is nothing provocative here.

Mark Wigglesworth impresses in the pit. The opening bars were slower, more Romantically yearning than I can recall hearing, and he certainly exerts command over the generally fine ENO orchestra (a few slips aside). The razor-sharp rhythms that Sir Charles Mackerras brings to the composer were not always quite there, but this remained a creditable performance. For whatever reason, Janáček seems to bring out the best in the company. And who would complain about that?

I wondered to begin with about Patricia Racette, her opening lines proving somewhat tremulous. But she inhabited the role of Katya, made us sympathise, drew us in, and led us to the final tragedy. Her acting and singing were as one, so to concern oneself too much with odd vocal imperfections is arguably to miss the point. Her diction varied, however, and in this, she was not alone – a particular issue for me, given that the titles were not visible from my seat. (Again, if one cannot hear every word clearly, why not sing in the original language, and permit the sounds at least to be correct? And is not the provision of titles an admission of defeat?) There are no such problems however with Susan Bickley’s magnificent Kabanicha. In many ways, this is not a rewarding role; one can only guess at what has made her the way she is, given the lack of even the slightest glimmer of humanity. This is not the Kostelnička. (Perhaps she once too was a Katya? Who knows?) But her stentorian malevolence can rarely if ever have been so searingly portrayed as here. Felicity Palmer was equally fine last time at Covent Garden. Both artists elicited a terrifying chill upon the apparently unmoved thanking of friends and neighbours for their kindness. Anna Grevelius and Alfie Boe made for a splendid pair of successful lovers; their carefree attitude contrasted strongly with the twin complexities of Katya and Boris, whose vacillation Stuart Skelton captured to a tee. John Graham-Hall’s mess – in a positive sense! – of a Tikhon was exemplary: it is no easy thing to portray weakness on stage without resorting to caricature. Clive Bayley’s Dikoy seemed, not unreasonably, to have stepped straight out of Mussorgsky’s catalogue of mendicants: no subtlety there, but it is not clear that the role invites subtlety.

And thank goodness ENO had the dramatic integrity to present the work without intervals! To have to repair to the bar between acts is utterly unwarranted, yet all too often financial reasons seem to win out. To remain in the theatre throughout makes for the requisite intensity of experience, despite audience chattering that too often endured into the dramatic presentation. (Coughers, I regret to say, were out in strength, nowhere more so than a few bars in.)

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