Katya Kabanova could be one of those plots we have heard a million times: a woman avoids immorality, succumbs anyway and punishes herself for her actions. Unhappy marriage, controlling mother-in-law, lover with family issues, friend who nudges her into temptation. What is unusual about this particular story is the intense focus on Katya’s psychological drama which, in stark contrast with the other characters’ lightheartedness, only increases the feeling of her tragedy. She is a complex character, a gentle soul in a difficult situation and filled with contrasting, violent emotions. Singer Amanda Majeski steps into her shoes with breath-taking intensity, making the audience (literally) shake with her during her mental breakdown. Director Richard Jones helps her create this effect by cleverly employing his cast of choir members and actors, who fill the stage for ordinary life scenes, empty it to emphasize Katya’s solitude and finally fill it with judging, disapproving eyes. Group scenes do play a very important role in the performance, dynamically changing the sets, introducing comical elements and effectively intensifying the drama by adding an extra dimension to the stage.
Although Majeski’s extraordinary performance in the title role was clearly the highlight of the opera, others are also worth a mention. Emily Edmons as Varvara and Susan Bickley as Katya’s tyrannical mother in law were both brilliant in their roles, one gaily praising love and the other pedagogically instructing a husband how to deal with his wife. A low mark goes to Pavel Cernoch, whose beautiful singing was poorly matched by his acting, resulting in a barely convincing male lead. Finally, Dominic Sedgwick proved he is worth keeping an eye out for. A participant in ROH’s Young Artists Programme, his short but passionately energetic interventions made me eager to listen to more of him in the future.
Like any good disciple of the Romantic tradition, Janaceck places a large weight on symbols. Natural elements, such as a bird, the river Volga that crosses the town where the action takes place, and the thunderstorm that accompanies the fateful upshot of the plot, all have metaphorical significance. The music which represents these elements is also symbolic, providing our ears with motifs that our subconscious then starts associating with specific events. Often you don’t really need to look at the stage to know what is going on, even without knowing Czech! Particular to Janaceck’s style is his treatment of dialogue. His melodies result from a thorough study of speaking patterns, so that rhythms and tones feel natural and conversational, informed by the mood and emotional state of the characters. The orchestration is very effective, actively shaping the action at every moment. One of my favourite sets was the end of the opera, where a delicate, yet disturbing off-stage choir leads to a tragic orchestral conclusion.
After all, this is no regular plot. Janacek’s dramatic and musical mastery together with clever staging and great performances make Katya Kabanova a tension-packed story of love, crime and punishment.