“Katya Kabanova” is considered one of the first “mature” operas composed by Leos Janacek. First premiering on November 23, 1921, the opera is adapted from Alexander Ostrovsky’s play “The Storm,” and is said to be influenced by Janacek’s unrequited love for a woman named Kamila Stosslova, with whom he kept frequent correspondence through letters. Centering on the timeless theme of forbidden love, the opera drew upon Janacek’s experience as a folklorist and musicologist to create a distinctive sound that hearkens back to Slavic folk music.
Short Plot Summary
The opera opens as Vana Kudrjas, a local schoolteacher, gazes upon the nearby Volga River from the public park. A merchant, Dikoj, and his nephew Boris, come seeking Kabanicha, the glowering matriarch of the wealthy Kabanova estate. Though Dikoj leaves after learning Kabanicha is not home, Boris remains to confide in Vana his duty towards his abusive uncle and his love for Katya, who is married to Kabanicha’s son, Tichon. The marriage between Katya and Tichon is strained not only by his neglect and drinking, but by Kabanicha, who often sharply rebukes Katya and emasculates Tichon; she goes as far as to say that Tichon would do nothing if Katya had an affair.
Katya sings to Varvara, the family foster-daughter, about her dreams of finding a husband who will genuinely love her. Shortly after, Tichon enters to bid Katya farewell as he goes off on business at the behest of Kabanicha. At first, Katya asks for Tichon to take her with him on his trip, but when he refuses she requests that he make her swear her fidelity while he is away. Kabanicha enters to hurry Tichon off while asserting how Katya is to treat her with respect; Tichon acquiesces to his mother and leaves.
Naturally, Kabanicha makes Katya miserable, chastising her for not seeming sadder while Tichon is away. Taking pity on her, Varvara tells her that she will be meeting her lover, Vana, in the garden while suggesting Katya come along because Boris will be there. Receiving the key to the garden, Katya puts her hesitation aside to meet him there. When Boris confesses his feelings to her, she is initially reluctant due to the consequences that will come from infidelity but gives in to the feelings she harbors toward Boris as they share a joyous duet.
Two weeks later, a great stream has broken out, causing many to take shelter in a nearby building. Among those taking shelter are Vana, Dikoj, Varvana, Kabanicha, Katya, and Tichon. Katya is highly upset upon Tichion’s arrival; she believes that her affair with Boris is what caused the storm and so she confesses her deed in front of all present before running back outside. Boris manages to find her, but cannot convince Katya to come away with him as he goes to Siberia on business; they say their goodbyes and Boris leaves dejectedly. Thinking about all the pain and trouble she has caused, Katya throws herself into the Volga River. A search party finds her body, and as Tichon weeps over his wife’s corpse, blaming his mother for her suicide, Kabanicha only gives an emotionless thanks to those present for their help.
Watch and Listen
He is a recording led by Christian Thielemann.