Opera Review: Katya Kabanov by Leoš Janáček, Opera North, The Lowry
About a third way of the way through Opera North’s Spring season we moved away from the 18th Century absurdism of late Mozart to the early days of the 20th Century, and three works made in the shadow of the First World War.
As Richard Mantle (general director, Opera North) pointed out, Katya Kabanova (1921), Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913) and Puccini’s Gianni Schacci (1918) all premiered within eight years of each other in a period of ‘enormous social change and amazing creativity’. Each was made in the light (and darkness) of the new century’s modernism in its own way. Gianni Schacci represents the fag end of Puccini’s Italian romanticism and is very funny for it, while The Rite of Spring resonates with Stravinsky’s revolutionary commitment to musical modernity. But let’s focus on Janáček’s Katya Kabanova.
Katya comes from a burst of creativity from someone who was well into his 60s when he started to compose it, and it was in response to seeing Madame Butterfly for the first time in 1919. One of Janáček’s main ideas was to move away from the ‘big tunes’ of Puccini to a style he called ‘speech tunes’ which would develop the individual psychological voice of each character while retaining the emotional power of a butterfly. He was also interested in Russian literature and culture as opposed to the lush themes of the Mediterranean. He chose to base Katya on a play called The Storm by Alexander Ostrovksy, which critically examined the morality of a growing small town bourgeois. Unsurprisingly, this came through in Janáček’s dark and powerful opera.
Katya Kabanova is the story of the married but unhappy Katya (Stephanie Corley). She is married to merchant Tichon (Andrew Kennedy) and lives in the household of his tyrannical widowed mother, Kabanicha (Heather Shipp). She bullies Katya for moral weakness bordering on prostitution and Tichon for loving Katya more than his mother. It is this religious-driven condemnation, underpinned by a sexual jealousy that fuels Kabanicha’s hatred of Katya. After sending Tichon away, it provokes her daughter-in-law’s infidelity with Boris (Harold Meers), the son of another local and wealthy merchant, Dikoy (Stephen Richardson).
In the absence of Tichon and urged on by local lovers, Varvara (Katie Bray) and Vanya (Alexander Sprague), Boris and Katya cement their desire by the banks of the Volga. In a staging that is as bleak and menacing as a Rothko painting, Katya is driven to the edge of insanity by the constant humiliation of the gossip of a small town and the sneering criticism of her mother-in-law. The sexual hypocrisy of the merchant bourgeoisie is displayed for all to see by the sadomasochistic dalliance between the dominant Kabanicha and a drunken, simpering Dikoy. This is dark stuff worthy of a Netflix commission or a News of the World exposé.
Caught between desire and guilt, Katya drowns herself in the Volga. Her body is brought before the village so they can wallow in their collective superiority and moral turpitude. As Katya, Stephanie Corley gives a wonderfully nuanced performance of a deeply loving and religious woman sent to her early death by a family controlled by a dominant matriarch and a class ideology of greed dressed up as religion. This is a moving opera, beautifully sung, played and staged by the ever-excellent Opera North.
Main image: Katie Bray as Varvara and Alexander Sprague as Kudryash © Jane Hobson
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