It is ironic that such a concentrated score should also be one of Janacek's richest and most ravishing creations. But Katya Kabanova is an opera steeped in paradox, wrong-footing us throughout as it anatomises its heroine's moral quandary, and David Alden's new ENO production sheds bold slices of light on its inner layers and contradictions.
This is a wonderful staging that stares long and hard at a woman's agony. Katya, pure of heart, longs to be faithful to her weak husband, Tikhon. If only she were not so irresistibly attracted to the dashing Boris, and if only her companion Varvara had not so kindly – so perversely – handed her the key to her gate of doom.
Alden's customary expressionism is painted in spare, angular settings by Charles Edwards that capture the barrenness of Katya's entrapment within the Kabanov household. The images are raw, coloured only by a splash of primer and a few scrappy daubs. Blank surfaces are lit from below and cast giant shadows across her world – an effect vividly achieved by lighting designer Adam Silverman – while time and again Katya's yearning to escape this desolate landscape draws her to the outer reaches of the stage. She clings to the proscenium arch or else stumbles towards the orchestra pit in a recurring pre-echo of her final leap into the Volga.
In a laudably self-effacing performance Stuart Skelton brings a louche vanity to the role of Boris, and that's all it takes to reveal the man's hand in Katya's downfall. If he had truly loved her, he would have let her be. As it is, his cry of "Thanks be to God" (in Norman Tucker's venerable translation) has the ring of profanity when contrasted with Katya's devout nature, and Skelton's heroic tenor has never seemed so pusillanimous. Some lover, this Boris: after Katya's death he is nowhere to be seen.
In a night of splendid performances Skelton is matched by Susan Bickley, stately and imperious as Kabanicha, the mother-in-law from hell, by Anna Grevelius as a spirited Varvara and by John Graham-Hall, lettuce-limp as Tikhon. As the colourful schoolteacher Kudriash, Alfie Boe steals a couple of scenes and sings with unaccustomed resonance.
The American soprano Patricia Racette makes a sensational ENO début as Katya. Her vocal quality is thrilling, her naked emotions heart-stopping. Racette possesses a formidable palette: the operetta-like close vibrato with which she expresses her character's purity yields, at moments of distress, to something altogether more direct and untrammelled. Katya acts impulsively when she's sane but sees clearly when she's disturbed, and Racette portrays her moral anguish with intense sympathy.
Mark Wigglesworth, who conducts the entire run of Katya Kabanova, has the measure of Janacek's burnished orchestration. The introduction was not quite all of a piece on the first night, but the ensuing ninety minutes allowed the ENO Orchestra to demonstrate once more their proven affinity with the composer's world. This is tricky music to get right, but Wigglesworth's choices of tempo and dynamics ensure that stage and pit coalesce powerfully.
Above all, though, it is Alden's show. Yet again this director demonstrates the uncanny knack of rendering an enigmatic score in visual terms and of enhancing its mood and meaning via deft, restrained stagecraft. Barring a surprising post-coital cliché (do stub out that cigarette, Boris) his production is a great one.