January 28, 2014 5:48 pm

Katja Kabanowa, Staatsoper Berlin, Schiller Theater – review

Eva-Maria Westbroek gives a peerless performance in the title role of Janáček’s opera
Eva-Maria Westbroek in 'Katja Kabanowa'

Eva-Maria Westbroek in 'Katja Kabanowa'

No matter how bad your mother-in-law is, Katja Kabanova’s is worse. Janáček can do vindictive old women like nobody else – buttoned-up, hypocritical, sadistic.

“You killed her,” cries Tichon in the final scene to his mother. “You alone!” She might not have succeeded were Tichon not such a mummy’s boy. In Andrea Breth’s brutal production, he drops his trousers on the open stage and steps meekly into an iron tub, letting his mother scrub his private parts before the assembled churchgoers.


IN Theatre & Dance

It is a heavy-handed image, yet sufficiently grotesque to provide a thrill of incredulity. Breth’s production, first aired in Brussels in 2010, is the kind of recycled product gladly billed by floundering intendant Jürgen Flimm as a premiere – new cast, new conductor, and a way of staying within budget constraints brought on by endless delays in renovating the Staatsoper’s historic home. Breth’s production is a dark but safe choice, especially with the added lure of Simon Rattle on the podium.

In fact the production’s greatest strength is Eva-Maria Westbroek. She makes the title role so much her own that it is impossible not to be moved. It is a peerless performance, filled with warmth, honesty and the most extraordinary generosity. Most singers would say that they give everything on the stage. Few really do; being human is a complicated business. Somehow, Westbroek seems to be without the parts that usually get in the way. She simply stands on the stage and is. Every conceivable emotion flows unhindered through her voice and envelops the listener in its truth.

As Kabanicha, the mother-in-law from hell, Deborah Polaski makes a formidable counterpart. This is not a woman you would want to mess with. Well though the men sing, in Breth’s production they become little more than wallpaper for the women’s destructive urges. Pavel Černoch is an elegant, honey-toned Boris, but Katja’s attraction to him here has nothing to do with his purported love for her, and everything to do with the inevitability of her doom. As Tichon, Stephan Rügamer, even when not being dominated by his mother, is helpless to the point of paralysis. And Kudrjasch, though given beautifully light colours by Florian Hoffmann, becomes merely a foil for Anna Lapkovskaja’s passionate, lyrical Varvara.

That Rattle loves every note of this score is evident in the tenderness he brings to it. His startlingly gentle take on the opera is free both of the hard, glassy edges that most conductors lend it, and from a truly coherent drive. The musicians of the Staatskapelle orchestra, with fewer axes to grind than their Berlin Philharmonic counterparts, reward him with voluptuous warmth, but not with consistently precise entries. The result is both compassionate and messy. In the course of the next five performances things will presumably tighten up; and a few ragged moments do little to detract from the overall impact of this strong evening.


Andrew Clark rounds up the finest recorded performances of Janáček’s operas here

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