Following his Laurence Olivier Award-winning production of Jenůfa, David Alden returns to English National Opera with arguably Janáček’s most lyrical opera, Katya Kabanova.
Amid Charles Edwards’s sparse set – barely more than a well-placed wall and hoarding – Alden allows the tale of a married woman desperate for escape and love take the spotlight.
Based on Ostrovsky’s play The Thunderstorm and inspired by the composer’s own infatuation with a married woman, it is a tale as bleak as its grey, lifeless setting where, amid the blacks and browns of a dour life, Katya’s blue coat sets her apart as a “little precious peacock”, as suggested derogatorily by her austere, controlling mother-in-law. What an insult! The small town, where everyone seems to know each other, clearly needs some life and colour, but such things are not to be encouraged.
Janáček’s music is never far from darkly menacing. Even in its most languid, lilting, love-filled moments the sense of foreboding is never far away, a rumble or a discordant note lurking beneath the surface.
American soprano Patricia Racette, making her English National Opera debut in the title role, curls and cowers in the world of her entrapment, afraid to flourish for fear of the consequences. How it makes one want to shake her and simply tell her to pull herself together and leave, but the time and place, of course, would not permit such extravagances.
ENO regular Susan Bickley provides a stern, Cruella De Vil of a mother-in-law, her frown barely broken through the course of the evening. Clive Bayley is a lumbering bear of a man as the fur-coated, thoroughly disagreeable merchant Dikoy, while regular Alden collaborator Stuart Skelton lends a nervous charm to Katya’s other man, Boris, before slipping into feebleness.
At one hour 45 minutes long, performed straight through, the levels of anger, despair and frustration build and build, with barely a moment to dissipate. While Alfie Boe’s teacher Vanya sees the Volga as a beautiful source of joy at the show’s beginning, the pastoral scene is transformed by the storm that arrives in this small Russian town.