Janácek's Katya Kabanova at the Royal Opera House is memorable because of its extraordinary artistic excellence. But it is also deeply moving because of conductor Sir Charles Mackerras' connection to Janácek and, in particular, to Katya Kabanova.
In 1951 Mackerras conducted the first performance of a Janácek opera in the United Kingdom: it was Katya Kabanova. Many years later he arranged a new performing edition of the score which was published by Universal in 1992. Mackerras corrected the large number of mistakes which appeared in former printed editions and he made Janácek's score more transparent.
Playing from Mackerras' performing edition and conducted by him, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House played like the most refined chamber ensemble. Although Janácek's score gets passionate and loud from time to time, nowhere did the orchestra overpower the singers. Indeed, the musicians in the pit were clearly inspired: when Janácek depicts nature or when Katya sings about birds, the woodwind soloists sounded very much like birds. During the final farewell scene for Katya and her lover Boris, the string instruments sounded as if they were crying.
The story of Katya Kabanova (based on The Storm by Ostrovsky) is not a million miles from Shostakovich's Katerina Ismailova, which was the first opera Mackerras conducted for the Royal Opera (1964). Both of the titular heroines are trapped in loveless marriages in wealthy rural Russian households and governed by strict parent in-laws. But unlike Katerina, Katya does not resort to murder. On the contrary, after her love affair with Boris, she is overcome by guilt and jumps into the river.
Trevor Nunn's stage direction, now revived by Andrew Sinclair, is unobtrusive and sensitive. The singers use body language, rather than any particular physical action, to express their characters' feelings. Maria Bjornson's stage design corresponds with Nunn's concept. We have the same set all way through but - with the characters' entries and exits - it variously represents the inside of the house, the garden or the river bank. There are two exceptions to the static scenery, both of which are breathtaking for different reasons. At the end of Act 1 Katya's husband Tichon departs on a cart drawn by a pair of real horses (one white, one brown). During the storm scene (Act 3), a large cross with scaffolding - representing a ruined building for shelter - first accommodates a large number of people standing on it and then collapses as the climax of the storm.
Particular praise is due to the whole cast for performing their parts in Czech. Of course, Janácek composed his music to Czech words, but the language is not easy for singers from outside Slavic countries.
Janice Watson was as outstanding a Katya as I have ever heard. She looked the part, she sounded the part and I am certain that she felt the part. Her portrayal of Katya's vulnerability was particularly impressive.
Linda Tuvĺs, as Varvara, was charming and entirely credible as the slightly mischievous but warm-hearted girl of nature. At times Janácek composes for her and for her love interest (Vania) in Czech folk song style. If I had not known who was singing, I would have had no problem believing that I was listening to a Czech country girl. Although Toby Spence (Vania) also excelled both in acting and singing, some of Janácek's folk song-type rhythmic accents seem to have passed him by.
Felicity Palmer (Kabanicha) is a marvel of a performer. This time her character's age is near enough to her own but her voice is still triumphant.
All three men performing major parts - Kurt Streit (Boris), Chris Merritt (Tichon) and Oleg Bryjak (Dikoj) - delivered to a very high standard.
The whole performance was so united and absorbing that I forgot that I was sitting in the opera house. It felt as if I was observing life and death at its most vivid.
Some of my colleagues mentioned that this run of performances would be Mackerras' last time with Katya. Knowing Sir Charles' eternal vitality, I would not bet on this. But I urge lovers of high quality opera not to miss this run.
By Agnes Kory