Janacek Brno Festival 2022 Review: Katya Kabanova
Poláčková Produces A Standout Performance In Bieito’s Narrowly Focussed ReadingBy Alan Neilson
(Photo: Festival Janacek Brno)
Human beings need love and friendship to flourish and to pursue normal, balanced lives. Remove this support and replace it with abuse, neglect and contempt, and a person will become unable to function successfully. They will become maladjusted, unable to relate to others with ease and confidence, and suffer increasing periods of loneliness and isolation. Desperate to find the care and love they are missing in their lives, they are more likely to make rash and poor decisions, resulting in consequences that can be very unpleasant, if not fatal.
This was exactly how director Calixto Bieito decided to portray Katya for his production of “Katya Kabanova” for the Czech State Opera at the Brno Janacek Festival. Everything was reimagined so that there was nothing positive in her life. All the negative possibilities were accentuated. She was trapped, imprisoned, with no one around her with the strength of character to support her. Her underlying sensitivity, which could have made her such a positive personality, was exploited, turning her into the perfect victim, one without the means of defending herself.
Bieito’s Sharp But Limited Reading
To this end, the scenographer Aida-Leonor Guardia created a set for Acts one and two which amounted to no more than a white room with high walls devoid of furniture. It was, for all intents and purposes, a cell within which Katya was metaphorically and psychologically imprisoned. There was no way out, even though other characters were able to enter and leave freely. Bieito had Katya behave like a caged animal, walking back and forth in a state of visible instability. A few rungs on the wall even allowed her to literally climb the walls. It was a depressing portrait of a miserable and painful existence.
All the other characters were unambiguously unconcerned about her physical, social or psychological welfare. Tichon, her husband, was a sentimental, spineless drunkard who chastised and frequently beat her. The free-spirited Varvara was only superficially supportive, interested more in the possibility of scandal, gossip and a good time. Therefore, it came as no surprise when she left for the big city at the first sign of pressure.
Boris’ intense love for Katya, which precipitated the chain of events leading to her suicide, was little more than lust. It all started well, as the early moments of most amorous relationships do. The sexual tension and sensuousness of their encounter were tangibly evident but quickly dissipated. After having sex against the back wall, he quickly loses interest and his treatment becomes off-hand, aloof and casual. In Act three, he displays little in the way of what might be termed love or genuine affection.
At the centre of Katya’s misery stands the figure of Kabanicha, who, although she terrorizes and humiliates all who come within her orbit, reserves a particular level of viciousness for her daughter-in-law, expertly calculated to maximize Katya’s suffering.
In Act three, Bieito has all the characters in Katya’s life gather together on the bank of the Volga. They stood passively, watching on as the distraught and broken Katya descended into a suicidal state. They were not there to help, only to judge her.
Bieito’s reading was intense, uncomfortable and certainly dramatically gripping. However, it was created by flattening out some of the characters so that their nuances disappeared. It steamrolled ahead, with little attention given to secondary emotions. On occasions, it was left to the music, both through the orchestra and the voices, to carry the opera’s more optimistic, positive moments, as visually it rarely deviated from the central narrative.
Musically, it was a far more balanced performance. The conductor Jaroslav Kyzlink elicited a sensitive reading from the State Opera Orchestra which captured the score’s dramatic nuances, which meant that, at times, there existed a disconnect with what was happening on the stage. On the other hand, a successful balance was always maintained between the pit and the singers and within the orchestra itself.
A Standout Performance From Poláčková
Listening to soprano Alžbeta Poláčková in the lead role, it is easy to understand why she is one of the stars of the Czech State Opera. Not only does she impress with her bright, luminous voice, but her singing also exhibits a fine degree of versatility, an ability to push into the upper register without any loss of control or quality, a pleasing legato, and a formidable capability to furnish the vocal line with emotional depth and dramatic detail.
All of which allowed her to develop a compelling portrait of Katya, whom, in line with Bieito’ reading, she successfully depicted as unstable, extremely unhappy and psychologically damaged. However, she was still able to respond sympathetically to the sweeter parts of the score, hinting at the open, sensitive side of her personality that was being systematically crushed. In the final scene, she was also able to imbue her voice with a defiant streak before succumbing.
In her act three monologue “Vidēt se s nim, rozloučit,” in which she despairs of finding any happiness in life, she yearns for death while at the same time reflecting on the possibility of finding joy with a life spent alongside Boris. She expertly captured Katya’s state of mind with an expressively sung rendition, coating her voice with an array of emotions, and accenting the lines with varying degrees of emphases, perfectly bringing out her confused and distraught state. It was a compelling performance, one that brought Katya fully alive.
There was something ungraceful and rough about Magnus Vigilius’ portrait of Boris. While he was certainly ardent in expressing his feelings for Katya, they never amounted to more than superficial expressions of affection, and certainly there was no suggestion of genuine love. He lusted after Katya, pure and simple. He was no savior, nor was he there to be redeemed by Katya’s love. In what was a fine performance, his singing appeared to be aimed at deliberately undermining the sweetness of the music during the love scene, although definitely not the passion. It was a reading that aligned perfectly with Bieito’s presentation.
Soprano Eva Urbanová expertly captured the viciousness and menace of Kabanicha in what was a stage-dominating performance. She was controlling, demanding and judgmental, which she brilliantly conveyed with her poisonous, threatening looks and aggressive body language. Her voice is secure and flexible, with a colorful pallet which she used skillfully to craft lines dripping with contempt as she challenged and bullied everyone around her but, obviously, with an extra bit of malice reserved especially for Katya.
Two days earlier, Jaroslav Brezina was less than convincing in the role of the ploughboy in “The Diary of One Who Disappeared.” This was not the case for his performance as Katya’s spouse, Tichon, for which he produced an animated and expressively sung performance that successfully captured his frustrations and violent nature as the ineffective husband who lived his life under his mother’s heel.
Mezzo-soprano Alena Kropáčková gave a compelling performance as Tichon’s adopted sister Varvara, whom she portrayed as a flighty individual who, although bearing no ill will toward Katya always appeared to have an ulterior motive in mind. She possesses an appealing voice with an attractive tone, which she used expressively to develop her character.
Dikoj, Boris’ uncle, was played by bass Jíri Sulženko. He made a strong impression, especially on his drunken visit to Kabanicha with a finely crafted portarait. Tenor Martin Šrejma in the role of Varvara’s lover, Váña, and baritone Jíri Hájek as Kuligin both sang well.
It may not have been the most satisfying of performances. Bieito’s accentuated and narrow focus put pay to that. But neither was it a disaster. The singing was excellent throughout, and the orchestra was still able to add nuance to the presentation. In defense of Bieito, his reading brilliantly brought out Katya’s intense psychological pain and misery, which kept the audience engrossed throughout. The problem was that it did not allow the characters the necessary scope to fully reflect Janáček’s music.