mon 17/06/2024

Katya Kabanova, Opera Holland Park review - clarity and pace in Janáček's Volga tragedy | reviews, news & interviews

Katya Kabanova, Opera Holland Park review - clarity and pace in Janáček's Volga tragedy

Katya Kabanova, Opera Holland Park review - clarity and pace in Janáček's Volga tragedy

Well-cast ensemble delivers intense and claustrophobic music-drama

Julia Sporsén as KatyaAll images © Robert Workman

Katya Kabanova is an ideal fit for Opera Holland Park’s verismo-focussed programming. It’s Czech, of course, but the dramatic style is very close to the Italian opera of the day, the story all gritty realism, the music punctuated with intense emotive episodes. This staging, a revival of Olivia Fuchs’s 2009 production, does the work full justice, a straightforward account that doesn’t overcomplicate the clear-cut narrative and morality.

Musically, too, this was an impressive performance, with Sian Edwards (pictured below with the orchestra) leading a well-paced account, nuanced but with no holding back at those searing climaxes.

The opera is based on a Russian play, The Storm by Aleksandr Ostrovsky. Katya is unhappily married to Tichon, who is controlled by his manipulative mother, Kabanicha. When Kabanicha orders Tichon away on business, Katya embarks on an affair with Boris, spurred on by Varvara, the family’s adopted daughter. When Tichon returns, Katya confesses all, and ultimately throws herself in the river Volga.

Janáček took little interest in the Russian setting, so designer Yannis Thavoris is wise to give the production a more abstract 19th-century feel. The scenes alternate between indoor and outdoor settings, but here we basically have a single set, the large stage floor lit in blue with wooden walkways running across – the Volga a ubiquitous presence throughout and a recurring symbol of fate. For the indoor scenes, a rotating circular platform is positioned stage right. At the start, it is filled with Victorian drawing room furniture and half enclosed with an arching metal grille, a powerful symbol of Katya’s oppression in the family home. Later, when Katya and Boris meet and furtively declare their love, they step from the walkway into the "water", Boris first and then Katya following, a similarly potent indicator of the social transgression of their actions.

Sian Edwards at Opera Holland Park

That’s about it for directorial intervention, with Fuchs otherwise presenting Janáček’s drama as is. The dysfunctional family dynamic at the start of the opera is powerfully conveyed, with Nicky Spence and Anne Mason as Tichon and Kabanicha an unsettling but wholly convincing mother and son (pictured below with Julia Sporsén and Clare Presland). Both sing well, and Mason in particular manages dominate the huge orchestral accompaniments she is typically given. Julia Sporsén is gripping in the title role. She doesn’t have a particularly elegant tone, especially at the top, but she is secure and sings with a real dramatic intensity. For the love music with Boris, she produces a completely different tone, soft, round and utterly endearing. Peter Hoare matches her as Boris. It’s not much of a role, and Janáček doesn’t present him as particularly complex, so Hoare’s reliable tenor and amiable stage presence fit the bill.

As usual at Holland Park, the supporting roles are well cast, and include some very fine voices. Clare Presland produces a clear and elegant tone for the role of Varvara, the scheming mezzo of the piece. The short libretto manages to squeeze in a subplot about her romance with Kudrjaš. Paul Curievici doesn’t quite match her for tonal control, but his blustering stage persona makes for an entertaining dynamic between the pair. Dikòj, Boris’s uncle, appears at the start of several scenes, his narrations filling in context and background. The Russian bass Mikhail Svetlov sounds suitably weighty here, with the sort of mature but still fresh voice that’s invaluable for such roles.

Scene from Opera Holland Park Katya Kabanova

A large chorus is assembled. They don’t have much to sing, but Fuchs makes good use of them as a largely mute observing crowd – great costumes too. The orchestra was a little rough round the edges to begin with, but found their form by the end of the first act. The brass and percussion were particularly effective in the storm music and at all the various emotional climaxes. A special mention for timpanist Tim Gunnell, whose incisive fate motif punctuates the score.

The airy and open-sided Holland Park pavilion doesn’t lend itself to the psychological claustrophobia that Janáček seeks, but Sian Edwards still managed to deliver plenty of intensity and focus. Rather than leitmotifs for the characters, Janáček employs different moods in the music to depict each, and Edwards did an excellent job of delineating these separate styles. She deserves much credit for the success of this revival, as does the entire cast for the compelling musical drama they make of this ensemble piece.


Conductor Sian Edwards leads a well-paced account, nuanced but with no holding back at the searing climaxes


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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