Katya Kabanova, English National Opera, ENO at the London Coliseum, March 2010

photo by Clive Barda

The Russian writer Aleksandr Ostrovsky wrote a play in 1859 called The Storm, set in a small town on the river Volga. It inspired this opera by Janaček, and half a dozen others by Russian composers. Ostrovsky disliked the low business morality and brutality of the merchant class, and the story contains an unpleasant merchant named Dikoj, along with his nephew Boris, a weak man who hopes to inherit, for himself and his sister, money left by his grandmother on condition he obeys his irascible uncle. The Russian operas on this theme are all called The Storm, but Janaček names his after Katya, who unwisely has a very brief affair with Boris. Katya’s husband, Tichon, another weak man, is under the thumb of his mother, a widow and family matriarch called the Kabanicha. She treats Katya with brutal contempt, and when Tichon goes away on business for a few days, the affair starts. When he returns, Katya feels awful and unwisely admits her guilt. This is her undoing, and while she is left with the consequences, Boris leaves to start life anew.

The river Volga is always nearby, a constant reminder of the forces of nature, and the opera starts with the schoolteacher, Kudrjaš taking joy in the natural world. Almost at the end, after the storm, Katya stands by the river and sings, “how peaceful, how lovely” before plunging in to her death. Her awful mother-in-law, the Kabanicha has the last word, maintaining cool propriety, as if the decorum of civilization can defeat the powers of nature.

It’s a three act opera, performed here without an interval in just over 100 minutes. And what a performance! As soon as the overture started I realized this would be musically entrancing, and Mark Wigglesworth as the conductor produced vivid sounds from the orchestra. When I saw this at the Royal Opera in July 2007, Janaček expert Charles Mackerras conducted superbly, but Wigglesworth’s interpretation was no less exciting, hitting the high points with great pathos. Added to that we had a wonderful Katya in Patricia Racette, whom I last saw as Butterfly in the recent production from the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Her singing was powerfully emotional and she gave a heart-rending portrayal of this distraught woman, so desperately in need of affection. It was altogether a strong cast with Susan Bickley as a very dominant Kabanicha, singing her speech melodies with a force to intimidate those around her. Stuart Skelton, whom I last saw at the ENO as Peter Grimes sang a very lyrical Boris, showing admirable weakness in his acting, Alfie Boe was also very lyrical as Kudrjaš, and Anna Grevelius was a delightfully flippant Varvara, adopted daughter of the Kabanicha, who draws Katya into the assignation that destroys her. John Graham-Hall performed well in the thankless role of Tichon, and Clive Bayley was excellent as the disagreeable merchant Dikoj. His stage presence was superb, as indeed it was when I last saw him as Bluebeard, and as the chaplain in Lucia, both at the ENO.

This was a new production by David Alden, and its spare sets and clever lighting by Adam Silverman worked very well for me. I particularly liked the use of shadows on the large wall that divides the stage. The only thing I found a little odd was the poster of the devil in Act III headed by the word proklyat’ in Cyrillic script, meaning curse or damnation — it seemed out of place, and the heading was not visible at the front of the Balcony.

But overall this dark and theatrically powerful opera is a must-see, and you would have to go a long way to find better singing or conducting — they were both virtually unbeatable.

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