Janacek’s 90-minute Katya Kabanova is amongst the most compact dramas in all opera. The composer’s own libretto, based on Ostrovsky’s 1859 play The Storm, is of such dramatic economy that the storytelling aspect of any production has to be pin-sharp.
The first night of English Touring Opera’s new production at Hackney Empire lost the narrative thread slightly towards the end. Janacek’s denouement is so precipitate that it felt as though the opera was running away from director James Conway’s otherwise masterful grasp. Hopefully, this will adjust itself in the coming performances as ETO tours the production to the regions.
With a background of splintered floorboards and mottled and scratched cyclorama, designer Adam Wiltshire provides a darkly atmospheric setting. In the third act, the shattered wood rises up into an angry, towering wave that threatens to crash down on the protagonists, while shards of religious iconography hover ominously.
Like Jenufa (revived by ENO at the Coliseum in the same week), Katya Kabanova tells a grim and moving story. While the earlier work deals with illegitimacy and baby murder, the adultery that is acted out before us in Katya could scarcely have been more shocking to Janacek’s first audiences in 1921 Brno.
Katya, married to an ineffectual and bullying husband and tyrannised by the mother-in-law from hell, is a soul yearning for emancipation and love. She is torn between received morality and the longing to fly free as a bird. Her fate is tragedy at its most inevitable.
ETO casts from youth, with a puppyish Boris (Richard Roberts), the heroine’s inconstant lover, and an endearingly free-spirited Varvara in Jane Harrington. The domineering mother, Kabanicha, has such impact it’s easy to forget how small a part it actually is. Fiona Kimm’s stern and unforgiving portrayal makes the most of the opportunity and hits just the right note.
Linda Richardson’s tall and attractive Katya plumbs the vulnerability more than the craving for escape but it is a superb performance, around which everything else revolves.
The touring band, under Michael Rosewell, sounds a little scrawny in places but rises majestically to the fettered sensuality of Katya’s music. Ecstasy lurks behind every note.
This is ETO’s first production of this magnificent work, and this tour may well be the first time it’s been seen in some of its regional venues. The chance to catch one of the 14 dates should be grabbed.
Katya Kabanova tours in tandem with ETO’s new production of The Magic Flute through to the end of May. Details of dates can be found at www.englishtouringopera.org.uk