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Reviews

05 Feb 2019

Amanda Majeski makes a stunning debut at Covent Garden in Richard Jones's new production of Kát’a Kabanová

How important is ‘context’, in opera? Or, ‘symbol’? How does one balance the realism of a broad social milieu with the expressionistic intensity of an individual’s psychological torment and fracture?

Kát’a Kabanová, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Susan Bickley (Kabanicha), Amanda Majeski (Kát’a), Andrew Staples (Tichon)

Photo credit: Clive Barda

 

I’m not sure that Richard Jones’s new production of Leoš Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová addresses, or solves, these questions, but it certainly made me reflect upon them.

By chance, earlier in the day BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour programme had debated ‘only-ness’: the feeling of being the only one to think, feel or act in a particular way - at work, within the family, amongst one’s peers or social groups. As Jones’s front-drop, embossed with a photo-image of a young girl - her wide eyes brimming with energy, the bird she clutches on the verge of sky-bound release - rose to reveal a young woman, head bowed, seated on a park bench in the centre of a bare expanse, ‘only-ness’ seemed an apt term.

Jones’s Kát’a is only, alone and lonely. But Aleksandr Ostrovsky’s 1859 play, The Storm, from which Janáček adapted his libretto, is a social critique of the moral decadence and hypocrisy of the late Russian empire, in particular the merchant classes. And, while in the opera the threat to social stability is perhaps less important than the eponymous heroine’s psychological instability, Kát’a’s immediate environment is just as significant a factor in her tragic decline as the hostile forces of Nature which control human destiny - the River Volga, the storm of Ostrovsky’s title - and her own self-destroying passions, erotic, religious and existential.

And, so, Jones gives us a crowd. They rush hither and thither, circling wildly, sometimes on bicycles, regardless of what the orchestral episodes are ‘saying’, though sometimes the movements cease, frozen by the grip of Lucy Carter’s lighting, and we can hear Janáček’s instrumental music sing Kát’a’s inner song. Society turns its back on Kát’a, an outsider; then, feasts its eyes on her beauty - as three swarthy men peer and leer through the windows of the Kabanová house, forcing Kát’a to tug the curtains closed, trapping her even more claustrophobically within her suburban, late-Cold War prison.

For Jones and his designer, Antony Mcdonald, update the action to the 1970s. When, at the start of Act 1, a half-wall descends near the front of the stage we enter a world of prevailing Stalin-esque ugliness. Stale yellows and browns reek of cheapness and a socio-cultural aesthetic bereft of life, love and soul; a menacing threat to Káta’s own beauty of spirit. But, the time-shift is not wholly satisfactory: in the ’70s would the persecuted, adulterous Kát’a feel compelled to undertake a guilt-driven, self-flagellating public confession, propelled by the forces of social disapprobation and disgust?

If it’s impossible to answer such a question then Jones doesn’t help by removing the opera’s religious symbolism and context - the libretto’s birds are, after all, both symbols of freedom and angelic emblems. Here, the Act 3 confession does not take place in a church, but rather in a bus shelter where the populace are sheltering from the meteorological frenzy: a refuge that put me in mind of the seaside shelter in which - in 1921, the year in which Janáček’s opera was premiered in Brno - T.S. Eliot had sat, recuperating from a nervous breakdown, writing Part III of The Waste Land. ‘On Margate Sands./ I can connect/ Nothing with nothing./ The broken fingernails of dirty hands./ My people humble people who expect/ Nothing.’

Majewski Clive Barda.jpg Amanda Majeski (Kát’a). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Quite. And, as if to push home the existential misery, in this production Jones often dispenses with context altogether and simply places the action in a huge cardboard box. When a side panel was raised, allowing a glowering lamp-post to slide through to cast its sneering illumination over the afore-mentioned park bench, the shadow of Beckett seemed to loom large. Such visual frugality certainly evokes the emotional paucity and bereft bleakness of the community in which Kát’a lives. But, surely the opera also intimates the possibility of love, truth, spiritual sincerity? Where, in Jones’s production, is the beauty of which Kát’a dreams, for which she yearns, and which is reflected by her own inner ‘goodness’?

And, where is the River Volga, ever-present in Janáček’s score - the soul of which calls Kát’a to her watery end: drowning or transfiguration, as you will? Jones tries to convince us that the river lies far out, beyond the audience. Some of the crowd cast their fishing lines into our midst (one unfortunately snapped his rod on this occasion), and the catch that they hook is shoved tauntingly into Kát’a’s face: jump in and join these slippery soul-sisters. But the fat, flapping fish is a mockery of the religio-erotic utterance which emanates from the waters in the form of the off-stage chorus which sings from and of the river’s soul in the closing episodes of the opera.

Having stirred up so many questions, how fortunate Jones is to have American soprano Amanda Majeski to push them from our mind. In her house and role debut, Majeski gives such heartfelt commitment to the role of Kát’a that one worries how she can come back down from the emotional peaks and precipices that she scales in her performance. The Act 1 narration in which Kát’a explains her dreams, visions and nightmares to Varvara was divinely radiant, a revelation of a spirit threatened by ruptures and repressions within and the ruthless rigidity of the world without. Here was an anticipation of the terribly anguished confessions of Luka, Skuratov and Šiškov in From the House of the Dead. Majeski lurched with paradoxical fluency through Kát’a’s emotional upheavals, from insular self-denial to nascent optimism, from sweet fulfilment to utter despair. Her Act 3 confession was simultaneously disturbingly irrational and hypnotically enthralling.

In 1924, Janáček told his ‘muse’, Kamila Stösslová, that, ‘Kát’a, you know, that was you beside me. … That’s why there’s such emotional heat in [these works]. So much heat that if it caught both of us, there’d be just ashes left of us.’ And, here, there was only ash at the close; the wick of Kát’a’s life-spirit was utterly expended, the ‘heat’ extinguished. I was put in mind of Pushkin’s/Tchaikovsky’s Lisa Ivanovna from The Queen of Spades - a recent visitor to the Covent Garden stage - of whom Janáček said, in a 1896 review of Tchaikovsky’s opera, ‘it is in the water that Lisa looks for an end to her troubles.’

Cernoch and Majeski.jpgPavel Černoch (Boris), Amanda Majeski (Kát’a). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Majeski’s stunning vocal acting dominated this performance. But, there were other performances to admire too. Pavel Černoch’s Boris was warm and refined of tone, and tender of heart, though it was sometimes hard to believe that it was the unrestrainable passion of this weak-willed young man - cruelly bullied by Clive Bayley’s boiler-suited, brash Dikoj - that had ignited the volcanic, illicit flame that engulfs so many lives. The lack of emotional connection between Majeski and Andrew Staples’ Tichon was more acceptable: but, Tichon, described in Mark Monahan’s programme article as ‘domineering’, was here anything but; rather, this supposed abusive alcoholic was pitiable, dominated by his mother, desperately in love with but emotionally disconnected from Kát’a - as much a ‘victim’ as his wife’.

Susan Bickley’s Kabanicha was shockingly cruel and sneering. In Act 1 her stare was as steely as her put-downs were powerful and glossy, and her ram-rod back, stuffed into a tight business suit, seemed both to embody and resist the prevailing social oppression. The Act 2 shenanigans between Kabanicha and Dikoj seemed to me to veer too dangerously close to caricature, however. Now the curtains were pulled to hide their hypocrisy from prying eyes, and Bickley sank to provincial curtain-twitchery when she was seen spying on Kát’a’s return after her nocturnal tryst with Boris at the close of Act 2. These scenes should underline the hypocrisy of the town’s moral standards, but I’m sure I heard a snigger in the Covent Garden stalls.

Tortise and Edmonds.jpgAndrew Tortise (Kudrjáš), Emily Edmonds (Varvara). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

With so much inhumanity on display, the very real human instincts and indulgences of Emily Edmonds’ Varvara and Andrew Tortise’s Kudrjáš were a welcome relief. Edmonds was full of zest and freedom of spirit - leaping impetuously (and literally) into Kudrjáš arms in the ‘garden’ scene. And, Tortise - despite Kudrjáš brown-striped ti-shirt of eye-watering ugliness, greasy curls and clunky spectacles - brought a stirring credibility to their amorous exchanges.

Making his first appearance in the Covent Garden pit, Edward Gardner drew a performance of tremendous warmth and beauty, and compelling sweep, from the ROH Orchestra. The score of Kát’a Kabanová is almost Debussy-ian in its evocativeness and is undoubtedly one of the composer’s most lyrical operatic utterances: was I unfair to lament the absence of the ‘violence’ that also lies within, or to miss the horror and the terror evoked by the dramatic lurches from one emotion to the next?

The tragedy of Kát’a Kabanová is that propriety wins over passionate truth. The composer, yearning for Stösslová to reciprocate his desire, may have identified with the illicit passion of Kát’a and Boris, but in the final reckoning the human failings on show are universal. The strength of this production is its heroine’s vision, superbly communicated by Majeski. And, it is a vision which Edmonds’ Varvara seeks to keep alive when, complaining of the spitefulness of Kabanicha, who locks her in her room as punishment for arranging the lovers’ tryst, Varvara pleads to Kudrjáš: ‘Will you teach me now how I must live?’ It’s a question we all might ask.

Claire Seymour

Leoš Janáček: Kát’a Kabanová

Kát’a Kabanová - Amanda Majeski, Boris Grigorjevič - Pavel Černoch, Marfa Ignatěvna Kabanová (Kabanicha) - Susan Bickley, Varvara - Emily Edmonds, Váňa Kudrjáš - Andrew Tortise, Tichon Ivanyč Kabanov - Andrew Staples, Glaša - Sarah Pring, Savël Prokofjevič Dikoj - Clive Bayley, Kuligin - Dominic Sedgwick, Fekluša - Dervla Ramsay; Director - Richard Jones, Conductor - Edward Gardner, Designer - Antony McDonald, Lighting designer - Lucy Carter, Movement director - Sarah Fahie, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Monday, 4th February 2019.

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