Without the tension of illicit love, opera would be a dull place. And without the engine of suppressed sexual longing (for his muse, Kamila Stösslová), Janácek would probably not have composed Katya Kabanova, his opera about the tyranny of small-town life. Janácek lived out his fantasies vicariously. But instead of letting them run riot in a blaze of self-indulgence, as most of us do, he channelled them into a searing 90-minute portrait of a woman whose marriage, like his own, was unfulfilled.
Small-town life has changed a lot in the 90 years since Katya was conceived, but the stifling rituals Janácek put into music still ring true, as Scottish Opera’s audiences will doubtless corroborate in coming months during this new production’s tour of 21 village halls and municipal theatres. The company’s annual small-stage tour remains one of the wonders of the opera world: in no other country is such a wide geographical and demographic spread of communities given direct exposure to the riches of metropolitan opera.
Katya is nevertheless a daring – some would say foolhardly – choice for a company wanting to lure the uninitiated into the art form’s peculiar pleasures. Janácek’s angularities sound more extreme in the piano-accompanied version Scottish Opera perforce employs; the instrumental colours he used to soften character and dramatic contour are conspicuous by their absence. The knock-on effect is that vocal weakness and muffled diction are ruthlessly exposed. Kally Lloyd-Jones’s compact period staging compensates by focusing on dramatic essentials, so that the emotional punch of Katya’s suicide comes across with full force.
Adrian Linford’s set, lit by Johanna Town, creates a versatile indoor-outdoor atmosphere – sufficiently realistic to explain the context but with enough artistic licence to stimulate the imagination. Like Ian Ryan’s tireless piano accompaniment, Nadine Livingston’s Katya tends towards stridency, before melting in the lyrical reveries of the Act Two love-tryst and Act Three mad scene.
Michael Bracegirdle is the not-quite-convincing Boris, Emma Carrington a vocally impressive but overly glamorous Kabanicha: at least the carnal connection with Paul Reeves’s excellent Dikoy rings true. Most attractive of all are Caryl Hughes’s Cupid-like Varvara and Simon Buttle’s bumbling Tikhon. Rating: 3/5
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