mon 11/11/2019

Katya Kabanova, Opera North review – a grim tale | reviews, news & interviews

Katya Kabanova, Opera North review – a grim tale

Katya Kabanova, Opera North review – a grim tale

High musical qualities in Janáček's tragedy of frustration and illicit love

Katie Bray as Varvara and Stephanie Corley as KatyaAll images by Jane Hobson

A sad tale’s best for winter, and Opera North have returned to Janáček’s lyrical taken on a classic Russian drama of domestic abuse, guilt and suicide for this ingredient of their current season. Director Tim Albery and designer Hildegard Bechtler created their production 12 years ago, revisiting their partnership on the same opera for the company eight years before that. It seems to cheer up a little each time… but only a little.

In 1999 the whole thing was virtually set-less and the costumes universally drab-grey, the better to emphasise the stifling and loveless respectability against which the story is told. The 2007 production offered similar costumes but a semi-abstract set, with only limited glimpses of a more colourful world beyond, as if to point towards the dreams poor Katya might have had of a passionate and fulfilled existence.
 
This time there was undoubtedly one laugh in it, although a wry one, as we see the obnoxious, rich and bullying Dikoy stick his hand up Katya’s prim and proper mother-in-law’s skirt just as the curtain falls on the first scene of Act Two. An opera audience will clutch at visual gags like a drowning man (or woman) to flotsam, in the context of a tragedy, so that was surely not unexpected, but whether it really fits the story is another question. There’s enough hypocrisy in Dikoy to fill a swimming pool anyway, and Kabanicha, the mother-in-law from hell, has given no sign of human feelings up to that point at all. Scene from Opera North's Katya KabanovaIt is a grim tale. Katya is married to a weak man, Tichon, who has turned to drink; they have no children, and Kabanicha (pictured above on the left as played by Heather Shipp, with Andrew Kennedy as Tichon, Stephanie Corley as Katya and Katie Bray as Varvara) makes both of their lives miserable through her merciless and demanding self-pity despite an appearance of churchgoing piety. When she sends Tichon off on a business trip, Dikoy’s young nephew Boris, who’s dependent on his uncle’s goodwill to get anything from his inheritance but has fallen for Katya in a big way, takes his chance of an illicit liaison with her in the shrubbery, not without enthusiastic help from Varvara, her foster-sister, who’s herself having a good time with Boris’s mate Kudryash.

Katya is plagued by guilt throughout, despite her longing for real love, and when Tichon returns unexpectedly early she collapses mentally – it only takes Boris’s acceptance of Dikoy’s decision to send him away to tip her over the edge (of the river bank).

In this bleak domestic tragedy of the kind they lapped up in the years in and around the First World War, Janáček found the avenue for glistening love music – albeit in the orchestra rather than on the characters’ lips – and his dramatic construction is taut in the extreme. The whole three-act opera is over in one hour 40 minutes of playing time, and Opera North do it without a break.

In one sense, for a company with a good orchestra and chorus and a gifted team of principals, it’s an easy win. We know whom to like and whom not to, and Heather Shipp’s Kabanicha earned a few pantomime-style boos for being the baddie, at the curtain call. She is an actress of great versatility, and only a few years after singing the title role in Carmen for this company she has turned herself into the operatic equivalent of Ena Sharples with skill and imagination. Her voice may not be the biggest mezzo in the world but it’s highly expressive and very listenable.

Harold Meers and Stephanie Corley in Katya KabanovaFor Katya Opera North have Stephanie Corley (pictured left with Harold Meers as Boris), their former Hanna Glawari in The Merry Widow and Kristina in The Makropulos Case: her pure tone and youthfulness are perfectly suited to the role, and she plays the frustrated Katya with desperate sincerity. After the romp in the bushes with Boris perhaps she should have had a little more hair out of place, but her guilty self-loathing was powerful enough. Katie Bray makes Varvara a real personality, very much flesh-and-blood and as earthily liberated a youngster as the early 20th century could likely conceive.

It’s the male characters who disappoint a little in this cast. Andrew Kennedy is an experienced nice-guy tenor (he’s been Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore for Opera North), and his singing is not at fault, but the son of a domineering live-in mother – whom his wife clearly fears at the times when he’s in drink and takes his shame out on her – was not immediately obvious. Stephen Richardson’s Dikoy is repulsive enough in the story but sings with almost too much refinement (it’s difficult to sing a baddie nastily, of course); and Harold Meers sings Boris nobly but with only a little evidence of the unrestrained obsession that lights the fuse of Katya’s downfall.

These are elements in the portrayal aspects of their craft rather than the vocal, so it’s still high marks for the musical qualities of this Katya Kabanova, and Sian Edwards’ guiding hand in the pit draws some ravishing playing from the orchestra alongside finely focused dramatic pacing.

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