Kudrjasch, half naked, peels parts of a scarlet dress from Warwara’s body. They are lasciviously entwined on a narrow wooden platform. Behind them, a medieval etching of hell is partly boarded over, recycled as the reverse side of a giant advertising placard showing the Volga river.

A hideous garden fence, a painted bench and the placard are all that Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito need in Stuttgart to tell the story of Katja Kabanova. Bert Neumann’s sets are minimal but gaudy, further augmented by two life-sized photographs of colourfully shabby ex-eastern bloc interiors. The result is a paradox – an open space that seems claustrophobic and suffocatingly close. These lovers have literally nowhere to hide.

Stuttgart’s new staging of Janácek’s masterpiece marks a turning point for the house. Director and dramaturge Wieler and Morabito rose to international fame here, nurtured by intendant Klaus Zehelein. Their meticulous, gripping productions became calling-cards for a regime that put content first. While they went on to Salzburg, Paris and Amsterdam, Zehelein’s successor Albrecht Puhlmann was glaringly failing to keep Stuttgart in the league of top German houses. His short reign will end next year, when Wieler will fill his shoes as Stuttgart’s intendant. Today’s stage director is tomorrow’s boss; Wieler has a lot to live up to.

Strong as Neumann’s sets are, they lack the fascination of Anna Viebrock’s unforgettable peeling courtyard for director Christoph Marthaler (Salzburg, 1998; Paris 2004). Wieler and Morabito invariably produce their best work when Viebrock is part of their team, but she could hardly have trumped her earlier Katja.

Leandra Overmann’s harridan Kabanicha dominates the cast, with some of the best singing coming from Pavel Cernoch and Matthias Klink, two lithe, young, lyrical lovers. Mary Mills, after a strained start, settles into a full-blooded account of the title role; Tina Hörhold makes a feisty Warwara. Michael Schonwandt brings an initially hesitant orchestra together in a vivid account of the score. The 105 minutes fly by and leave us with the sense of having been part of something harrowing. () www.staatstheater.stuttgart.de

4 star rating

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