Katja Kabanova, Staatsoper Berlin, Schiller Theater, Berlin, January 2014Posted on 26 January 2014
At the end of this post-apocalyptic vision of the opera, when Katya sings how quiet and beautiful everything is she is standing by a bathtub. Suddenly as the men sing that a woman has thrown herself into the water, she gets into the tub, slits her wrists and dies. The singers look out at the audience, without seeing her.
To ensure we understand the alienation of Katya from her husband Tichon, and mother-in-law the Kabanicha, the first scene shows her crouched inside a refrigerator, while a little girl comes along and shuts the door. And although the opera, based on Ostrovsky’s play The Storm, takes place on the banks of the Volga River, water is only represented at the start in the washing of underwear and a huge and very effective downpour. The storm, when it comes, is represented by lightning without rain, and the sex between the young lovers off-stage, and between the Kabanicha and the merchant Dikoj, grossly performed on-stage, appears to be nothing more than a brief desire for lust. Apart from that first downpour we are in a cold world with little water or feeling.
Yet in this masterpiece of dramatic intensity by Janáček the nuances were not lost on Simon Rattle, whose orchestral direction revealed not only the feelings and speech rhythms of the characters, but allowed the music in the purely orchestral interludes to sing for itself. This wonderful realisation of the composer’s work was enhanced by beautifully musical singing from Eva-Maria Westbroek in the title role. Her gripping performance of a woman dominated by her mother-in-law was well aided by the rest of the cast, particularly Pavel Černoch’s Boris, who is similarly under the thumb of his uncle Dikoj as keeper of his inheritance. Stephan Rügamer sang strongly as Katya’s husband Tichon, represented in this production as a scatty but forceful Monsieur Normale with one shirt-tail hanging loose, rather than the usual ineffective but well-behaved young man, and Deborah Polaski as his mother sang with authority though her portrayal did not convey the despotic nature of this matriarch except in one theatrical moment where she bathes the lower part of Tichon’s body, with special emphasis on washing between his legs.
The young lovers were well sung by Anna Lapovskaja as Varvara, and Florian Hoffmann as the schoolteacher Váňa Kudrjaš, and in the early part of the opera they looked the part in their modern casual clothes. Yet one sinister aspect of this production, first shown at the Thêátre de la Monnaie in Brussels in 2010, was that the servants and later other female cast members including the Kabanicha, wore black robes with black headscarves. Why so? In a programme essay one author refers to the director Andrea Breth, who has worked widely in German Theatre, as a ‘philological Archaeologist’ who makes an untiring analysis of the text, yet this Czech opera — sung in the original language — deals with forces of nature. During the storm, Dikoj, who is now shown to be blind, insists that lightning is a judgement from God, so the black robes and headscarves for the women may represent religious bigotry and superstition, and the fires and candles that appear in place of water suggest a world where something has gone very wrong indeed.
Yet Janáček’s music shone through the gloom, and the most heartfelt audience applause went to Simon Rattle for his superb interpretation.
Performances of this production continue until 16 February — for details click here.