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<em>Kát’a Kabanová</em>, Investec Opera Holland Park
17 Jul 2017

Kát’a Kabanová at Investec Opera Holland Park

If there was any doubt of the insignificance of mankind in the face of the forces of Nature, then Yannis Thavoris’ design for Olivia Fuchs production of Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová - first seen at Investec Opera Holland Park in 2009 - would puncture it in a flash, figuratively and literally.

Kát’a Kabanová, Investec Opera Holland Park

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Peter Hoare as Boris and Julia Sporsén as Káťa

Photo credit: Robert Workman


Streaking shards of blue - the surging waters of the Volga that will engulf Kát’a, or perhaps the electric flashes of the storm which propels her fateful confession - shoot across the wide stage at Holland Park, as piercing as the timpani’s thumping fate motif.

A boardwalk weaves around a steel ‘cage’ housing some Edwardian furniture and a samovar - hinting that the oppressive hounding of the individual by communal conformity was just as prevalent in the early-twentieth-century West as it was in the nineteenth-century Russian village where Alexander Ostrovsky sets his realist play, The Storm, which is the source for the composer’s libretto. Fuchs’ ‘gentrification’ of the milieu might also be justified by Ostrovsky’s own setting of Kát’a hopeless plight as an indication of the power of the ruling merchant ‘autocracy’.

The wide span of the Holland Park theatre does not really lend itself to intense psychological drama but Fuchs’ direction is as economical as Janáček’s score, clearly and precisely charting the opera’s rapid progression from turbulence to tragedy. Just as the unbending bars of the cage on the left of the stage emphasise the ever-present binding grip of community and tradition, so the reed beds far right suggest the irresistible dream of escape which provides a dramatic counter-force.

KK chorus.jpg Members of the OHP Chorus. Photo credit: Robert Workman.

The chorus don’t have much to do, for Janáček - who was not really interested in presenting a social critique of the Russia of sixty years before - reverses Ostrovsky’s focus from the town onto Kát’a herself. Fuchs and movement director Clare Whistler effectively use stylised movement to suggest both the facelessness and the monotony of repression.

In the title role, Swedish soprano Julie Sporsén was perhaps more effective at conveying Kát’a’s later rhapsodic intoxication on dreams of passion and freedom, than she was at capturing her fragility and meekness in Act 1 in the face of Kabanicha’s cruel domination. I felt that a softer edge to the sound was required to evoke the young girl’s docility - after all, initially the tension is not between Kát’a and the community, for she shares the ‘values’ which Kabanicha and Dikój impose; and a singer needs to capture both Kát’a’s compliance and her self-scrutinising fear of transgression.

Julia Sporsén as Katya.jpg Julia Sporsén as Káťa and Clare Presland as Varvara Photo credit: Robert Workman.

But, in Kát’a’s monologue with Varvara, Sporsén convincingly suggested the nascent hysteria within Kát’a’ as she realises that her only hope is to prevent Tichon’s departure. And, in the double love scene in Act 2, her melodic lines swelled with limitless emotion, as if simply by singing without cease her revelation and love could be made to last forever. ‘Now observation that time is passing, as the night-watchman marks the hour.

Kabanicha and Dikoj.jpg Anne Mason as Kabanicha and Mikhail Svetlov as Dikój. Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Anne Mason was superb as Kabanicha. Her mezzo was burnished and powerful, leaving no doubt of Kabanicha’s nastiness without descending into caricature. Her disparaging sneer, ‘Is he a lover you’re saying goodbye to’, at the end of Act 1 revealed her utter lack of compassion. Mason was a disturbing combination of frightening hostility and almost farcical hypocrisy - and Fuchs’ hint that Kabanicha and Dikój, sung with stentorian stature by Russian bass Mikhail Svetlov, are secret sadomasochists was uncomfortably credible.

Tichon.jpg Nicky Spence as Tichon. Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Nicky Spence and Peter Hoare must be getting used to pairing up in Janáček’s operas having appeared together earlier this summer at Grange Park Opera in Katie Mitchell’s 1998 Welsh National Opera production of Jenůfa , reprising a partnership formed at ENO in David Alden’s production of the work last year. They were equally comfortable in their roles as Tichon, Kát’a’s weak-willed husband, and Boris, her impetuous lover, respectively.

Spence was utterly credible as the put-upon merchant who swigs surreptitiously from a hip flask to avoid the stresses of both his business and his mother’s bullying. It’s certainly the only spirit in him; but, it also makes him deaf to Kát’a’s pleas.

Boris.jpg Peter Hoare as Boris. Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Hoare’s tenor soared with strength and passion, but Boris is no dark, brooding Laca, and Hoare’s characterisation brought out his irresponsibility and immaturity. Boris is an outsider in the community - Ostrovsky’s stage directions indicate that he should wear Western dress - and it is fitting that Fuchs makes Boris the first to dare to step from the restrictive wooden platform into the rushing Volga, coaxing Kát’a to follow him into the waters which represent, for her, both life and death.

Clare Presland was a charming, characterful Varvara, her strophic songs offering some much-needed, if temporary, relief from the prevailing tension. Presland used her full-toned mezzo to communicate Varvara’s free-spirited amorality: she believes that it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you don’t get found out. But, this was a rounded portrait and Presland did not suggest that Varvara was blameless. She and Paul Curievici’s personable, warm-voiced Kudrjaš might have been a little more impassioned in their Act 2 duet, but, then, the joy of the moment is merely a fragile peace.

Paul Curievici as Kudrja.jpg Paul Curievici as Kudrjaš and Clare Presland as Varvara. Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Sian Edwards drew precise, taut playing from the City of London Sinfonia but I missed some of the ‘rawness’ of Janáček’s score: the contrast between the extreme juxtapositions of high and low, the almost suffocating mass of the whole ensemble. The chromatic turn figure which conveys the lovers’ anxious expectation should surely plague one’s heart like the twist of a knife; the troika should explode with almost feverish vigour, indicating and inflaming Tichon’s agitation. Perhaps Edwards was cautious so as not to overpower her cast, but a few more risks would have raised the psychological thermometer still further.

Fuchs controls the ending’s rapid denouement skilfully. Hypocrisy and injustice resonate with discomforting power. But, in fact, Kát’a is defeated by her own shame at having destroyed her moral values. She recognises that the ecstasy of religious fervour has been replaced by an erotic giddiness: the storm is, Dikój proclaims, a punishment from God. And she believes him. Overcome by her own conscience, she kills herself: which makes Kabanicha’s proud, self-righteous claim of ‘victory’ so brutally ironic and the final pounding of the timpani’s ‘inevitability’ motif so mocking. The only relief is the wordless chorus - the soul of the Volga - whose voices sweep Kát’a away.

Claire Seymour

Janáček: Kát’a Kabanová

Kát’a Kabanová - Julie Sporsén, Boris - Peter Hoare, Kabanicha - Anne Mason, Tichon - Nicky Spence, Varvara - Clare Presland, Kudrjaš - Paul Curievici, Dikój - Mikhail Svetlov, Glaša - Laura Woods, Fekluša - Polly Leech, Kuligin - Ross Ramgobin, Žena - Ayaka Tanimoto, Boatman - Michael Bradley; Director - Olivia Fuchs, Conductor - Sian Edwards, Designer - Yannis Thavoris, Lighting Designer - Colin Grenfell, Movement Director - Clare Whistler, City of London Sinfonia, Opera Holland Park Chorus.

Investec Opera Holland Park, London; Saturday 15th July 2017.

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