Monday, 2 July 2007

Janáček: Katya Kabanova, Royal Opera, 2 July 2007

Leoš Janáček: Katya Kabanova

Royal Opera House, Monday 2 July 2007

Marfa Ignatěvna Kabanová (Kabanicha) - Felicity Palmer
Tichon Ivanyc Kabanov - Chris Merritt
Katěrina (Kát'a) - Janice Watson
Varvara - Liora Grodnikaite
Savël Prokofjevič Dikoj - Oleg Bryjak
Boris Grigorjevič - Kurt Streit
Vána Kudrjáš - Toby Spence
Glaša - Miranda Westcott
Fekluša - Anne Mason
Kuligin - Jeremy White

Royal Opera House Orchestra and Chorus
Sir Charles Mackerras (conductor)

Sir Trevor Nunn (director)
Andrew Sinclair (revival director)

Sir Charles Mackerras was the first to conduct a Janáček opera in this country, this very work in 1951, at Sadler's Wells. Surprisingly, and notwithstanding his celebrated 1976 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, this series of performances has been the first time he has conducted Katya Kabanova for the Royal Opera. It has certainly been worth the wait. If Sir Colin Davis is authoritative, perhaps even definitive, in the music of Berlioz (see last week's Benvenuto Cellini), then so is Mackerras in that of Janáček. The experience of more than half a century made itself shown, yet there was a vitality as youthful as one could imagine. To present such a combination of authority and fresh (re-)discovery is a rare thing indeed, once again akin to Davis's Berlioz. Rhythms were taut; harmonies were justly placed, neither under- nor over-played. The orchestra was on excellent form, both corporately and solistically (a welcome change from the recent Fidelio). And all aspects of the performance sounded - and looked - fully co-ordinated with Sir Trevor Nunn's production.

This might lazily be described as 'traditional'. What a relief, though, for those of us for whom this is not automatically a pejorative term, to have a staging responsive to the work, including the musical text. The storm scene – Alexander Ostrovsky's play was entitled The Thunderstorm – was especially well handled, stage events mirroring musical events, and vice versa. The flashes of lightning were well considered: terrible, but without anything of the unnecessarily 'spectacular'. And the collapse of the Cross at the centre – visually and conceptually – of the scene, provided a powerful metaphor for the collapse of Katya's world in this confessional drama. Doubtless Katya could successfully be staged in various periods, but there is no reason to disdain a production that respects both Ostrovsky's original nineteenth-century Russian setting and Janáček's adaptation.

Janice Watson was superb in the title role. The tenderness of her portrayal would have led anyone to sympathise, even if her cause had been rather less just. Kurt Streit sang well, though one felt little magnetism in his portrayal of Katya's lover, Boris. Felicity Palmer, however, threatened to steal the show as the shrewish mother-in-law, Kabanicha. Her unflinching moralism coruscated. Whilst it could hardly make the role sympathetic, Palmer's portrayal rendered utterly credible her vicious bourgeois persecution of Katya. Her final line, unmoved by Katya's fate, respectably thanking the good people of her community for their assistance, was delivered as chillingly as one dare imagine. Toby Spence and Liora Grodnikaite were both wonderful in their roles as the opera's other pair of lovers: full of youth, life, and tenderness. The fine shaping of vocal lines was doubtless a product of Mackerras's careful preparation, not to mention inspiration. This was a memorable evening indeed.