Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Mar 12,14,16
Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Mar 21-23
You wait years for one Janacek operatic masterpiece to be revived on the British Islands, then three come along at once. When I say three, I actually mean the same one being performed more or less at the same time by three different companies. The opera in question is Katya Kabanova by Leoš Janáček, & the companies are Opera North, the Royal Opera House & for my personal delectation, Scottish Opera.
Janáček was a prolific Czech composer, who lived in a halyconic period for opera between the years of 1854 & 1928. The reputation for his syrupy, swirling time signatures has grown consistently over the past century, with the British affection being formerly ordained via the Prague National Theatre’s visit to the Edinburgh festival in 1964.
In the last decade of his life, the one in which Katya Kabanova was produced, Janacek had found love & musedom with the much younger Kamila Stösslová. The passion they generated seems to penetrate Katya, with Janáček declaring that the composition had flowed like “the beautiful river Volga”. Indeed, at all times the music seems very personal, drawn from real experience, or at least interpretations of those experiences, rather than abstract artistic ideals.
Katya Kabanova is a solemn, but ultimately satisfying piece. A tale of illicit activity between a love-starved stay-at-home, caged bird wife who becomes possessed by the magnetism of a gregarious young buck – with a suitable suicide to finish. A simple tale, but enriched a thousandfold by Janacek’s music. For the SO version, in her debut for the company Laura Wilde was stunning, flawless even, & dramatic, o yes, so watchable, so powerfully pathetic.
‘Look at the precious bird, see how she gets her feathers ruffl’d.’
Beside Katya, the other women are all strong forces, & perhaps all were merely avatars of Kamila Stösslová. Each are interesting, profound even, & on the night were sung beautifully. The men, of course, sang equally as well, but the male characterizations are noticeably shallow in the shadows of the goddesses. This is no fault of the singers, of course, but this is a heroine opera.
The setting is the river Volga & a small bourgeois town beside it. Aesthetically the stage was incredibly pleasing; from riverbank reeds to giant bridge-girders taken from South Queensferry. For those who know the opera the bridge was an ever present Sword of Damocles hanging over the denoument. I also loved the communist factory vibe, with the costumes seemingly taken from a 1970’s episode of Coronation Street – they were very cool!
‘Because you love theatre,’ is the SO’s mantra, ‘because you love opera,’ & to experience this particular opera on this particular occasion felt like experiencing the true meaning of art on all its many wonderful levels. A precise & extremely pleasurable production, of whom all involved should be proud to played a part.
Damian Beeson Bullen