Katya Kabanová, Janácek

Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, Lisbon

18th January, 2011


The Bridges of Medveditsa County

The Czech language (as it has been explained to me) has a problem with its conditional tense: it exists out of time, so that to say “I would like some dumplings” is indistinguishable from “I would have liked some dumplings” (sigh). This sense of disillusion permeates many of Janácek’s operas, as in his masterly Katya Kabanová, where the romantic (and doomed) spirit of the young struggles against the entrenched, sadistic bitterness of the old.

David Alden (and designer Charles Edwards) delivered a bleakly beautiful telling of the tale here at the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos in Lisbon, with an efficient, evocative staging that allowed for clear relationships to be almost geometrically drawn between the characters.

Photos by: Alfredo Rocha / TNSC

Placing the story close to the time of the opera’s composition, in early 20th-century Russia, the director enabled the setting to reflect the restless state of despair Katya finds herself in: isolated under a vast grey sky, revolution looming, alcoholism rampant, nowhere to turn except the icon hanging on the parlour wall, as cold and unforgiving as the Volga itself.

The set was dominated by a backdrop that looked like an enlarged fragment of a Constable storm painting: a violent wash of grey and white paint, referencing the title of the original 1859 play (The Thunderstorm by Ostrovsky). In front of this, Alden and Edwards chose to focus each scene with a single prop: a chair, a lamppost, a billboard.

At the opening we see a heavyset Glasha wearily peeling potatoes in the whitewashed kitchen. The angled wall behind her is only half-painted, revealing the composite board beneath, and featuring a single, closed door wedged in the middle. It is the merest suggestion of a room, of a time and place, yet we know everything we need to know: we feel the burden of her existence, the rustic austerity, the tedium and the entrapment. Glasha and Katya’s stories, as women of different social classes, are perhaps not so different.

As Glasha works from her chair she casts a stark, solitary silhouette, an effective lighting device used periodically throughout (well-crafted by lighting designer Adam Silverman). The shadows didn’t just create pretty pictures, however; they added another layer of psychological import as their size and proportion varied with the shifting power relationships and presences of the characters.

Most strikingly, the silhouettes cast by Kabanicha and Dikoy during their debauched drinking scene actually became a crimson red, the intensity of colour growing with their inebriation. (I’m sure there is a simple technical explanation for how one creates a crisp red shadow against a white wall, but I have never seen this technique employed before and found it to be wonderfully preternatural.)

The cleanliness of the lines onstage was matched in the pit under the baton of Julia Jones, who proved especially deft at managing those tricky Janácek corners. Some shaky instrumental solos revealed the individual quality of the players of this small house to be perhaps not so high, and so the transparency of tone and the variety of colours elicited by Maestro Jones was all the more impressive. One might have asked for a more powerful sense of momentum from them occasionally.

Ausrine Stundyte, in the title role, is an interesting and intelligent actress, and this made up for some technical shortcomings vocally. Much of her range sounded artificially darkened to my ears, and this seemed to limit a voice that had moments of specialness when focused.

The director unfortunately chose to present Katya as a kind of madwoman, all undone hair and tattered sequined gown. Her lover Boris (sung with casual grace by Arnold Bezuyen) seemed more bemused by her than mutually infatuated, and as she lurched from violent passion to crumbling guilt I wondered if she really need be such an extreme character. Her eventual suicide, like her affair, is not ultimately an irrational or all-that-unlikely act; as in the contemporary Madame Bovary, it is the banality of the events that make them all the more horrible.

And just as in that novel, this opera features a mama’s boy in the role of the heroine’s asexual husband, Tikhon, brilliantly presented by Hans-Georg Priese. Clumsily dropping papers and cringing at his domineering mother’s bark, the gangly tenor, with a strong and present voice, was very much a boy still not grown into his body or his role as husband.

Dagmar Peckova as the mother Kabanicha, costumed in vampirical black-and-red glittering frocks and extravagant headgear, was fearsome indeed, though again I questioned the director’s choice of having a figure be so exaggerated as to nearly lapse into caricature. Yes, she is a monster, but if her humanity is lost to us entirely, what is tragedy can too easily slide into farce.

Natascha Petrinsky, as the adopted daughter Varvara, was jumping in on this evening and so her lively, amiable characterization was all the more appreciated. Vocally, her sound was a bit too “old” (with a thick, covered resonance) for the role of perky younger sister, but she sang with ease and charm regardless. Her lover Kudriash was sung by Finnur Bjarnason with youthful vigor. With a voice that was bright and spinny if somewhat pinched, Bjarnason had the right tone of dreamy earnestness, and delighted with his impromptu folk dance in Act II.

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Janácek is still something of a hard sell in the Mediterranean parts of the world and this performance was terribly undersold. But I do wonder if the Portuguese, in their sunny, pastel-colored city, will eventually discover that they have more in common with Janácek’s weary potato-peeler than they care to admit.

After all, this is the country renowned for its mournful fado singers, full of regret and longing, saudades for things irretrievably lost.

I would have liked . . .

 

Bottom line: A lucid telling of a messy tale

 

Georges Briscot

 

response to this review: response@operaticus.com

Production Credits

Co-production with the ENO and the Teatr Wielki-Opera Narodowa, Warsaw

Conductor - Julia Jones
Director - David Alden
Set Design - Charles Edwards
Costumes - Jon Morrell
Choreography/Movement - Maxine Braham
Lighting - Adam Silverman

Cast

Katya - Ausrine Stundyte
Tikhon - Hans-Georg Priese
Kabanicha - Dagmar Peckova
Boris - Arnold Bezuyen
Dikoy - Magnus Baldvinsson
Kudriash - Finnur Bjarnason
Varvara - Natascha Petrinsky (jumping in for Anna Grevelius)
Glasha - Laryssa Savchenko
Kuligin - Mário Redondo
Feklusha - Ana Cosme

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THIS PRODUCTION:http://www.saocarlos.pt/