Royal Opera House 2018-19 Review: Káťa Kabanová
Crystalline Vocalization Doesn’t Lend Vapid Staging Much-Needed ThunderstormBy Sophia Lambton
Set in a provincial Russian town close by the Volga River, the basis for Janáček’s “Káťa Kabanová” – Alexander Ostrovsky’s play “The Storm” – invites the color palette of a murky staging; a cerulean hue or olive green to mirror the portentous themes that percolate the sometimes dissonant, sometimes harmonious and sinuously changing score.
Unlike many opera settings, the visual background for this work is neither lush nor regal; with pedantic references to boredom, social rules and regulations and mundanity, it is most likely to comprise a bowl of ripe and rotting fruit, a wooden table and commode and possibly the image of a woman peeling a potato. In essence, one expects to see a picture reminiscent of Cézanne’s more earthly, glum depictions of humanity’s humdrum existence.
An Incomplete Concept
While Richard Jones’s new production of the work zooms in on the banal entrapment in its story – a young woman bullied by her mother-in-law, caged in a marriage to a man she doesn’t love, harboring unruly sentiments towards another – it also doesn’t specify the horror of the heroine’s environment. In what appears to be a sixties or seventies backdrop, both the outdoors and Káťa’s living room are housed in luminously glowing yellow walls: their shape makes them resemble the interior of a cardboard box. Costumes are appropriately plain and rudimentary; bay windows line the outside of the home. The latter incites puzzlement, for while the opera’s story could be easily transferred to twentieth-century or even modern Russia or the Czech Republic, both the exterior of the house and a tall street lamp look distinctly British or, at least, not European.
Most of the devices Jones employs function in favor of the opera’s concept – yet they also don’t sufficiently reflect it. Evidently the illicit love that Káťa feels for Boris is a self-explanatory matter, but without some more elaborate exploration of her basic confines, we’re at loss to know what is so horribly unbearable about her environs. Though decorations are a little scarce, there are few details that help highlight the “provincial” element of the libretto or Ostrovsky’s play.
Only the emptiness outside – an “outside” wholly barren of both plants and sidewalks – acts symbolically to let us know that Káťa’s world is empty. In this minimalist setting, crucial grittiness is missing. The hauntingly repellent stimulus we hear being repeated throughout Janáček’s motifs is heard but never seen – unless one counts the scathing looks of passers-by laughing at Káťa after learning of her extramarital affair. That in itself is one trope overused too many; if we have to witness social disapproval, could it not be somewhat subtler, or at least expressed originally?
If Janáček’s experimental score had been far more orchestrally reductive, Jones’s staging would more compatible with the work’s music. Yet with its unexpectedly propulsive forte moments and incessant ominous motifs on woodwind cutting into violins’ high-pitched and eerie sounds, the opera merits a more vivid and more daunting portrait of the world at hand.
In a stark contrast to the bleak and frightful nature of the score, Amanda Majeski lends a welcomingly innocent portrayal of the scared heroine to her interpretation of Káťa. Gifted with a simultaneously full-bodied, silvery soprano and nearly omnipotent vocal technique, Majeski controls her vibrato with sumptuous self-guidance. Its total potential is unleashed in peaks of the protagonist’s dreaminess – such as her admission of the “stupid dreams” that she has had (“A jaké sny se mi zdá, jaké sny”). In her use of superlative, tender diminuedi, Majeski thins her voice so that her character seems almost in a trance.
It seems at intervals however that certain artistic choices of hers are imposed by the director – or the movement director Sarah Fahie, who seems to hold far too much sway over the onstage gestures, making characters’ premeditated miming seem unnatural. Just before Káťa intends to commit suicide, Majeski holds on to the same stoic facial expression – one used at length at several other points through the performance. One wonders, given many other obviously directed gestures in this production, what her physical interpretation would be like if she had been completely free to paint the image of her heroine.
Pavel Černoch’s Boris makes for a much less sympathetic character. While some of this can be attributed to directorial decisions – in his first scene Boris stands with his hands stuck in his pockets, ostensibly smug – in large part it is Černoch’s vocal approach that diminishes Boris’s pitiability. Though his tenor is a well-equipped and potent instrument, Černoch hurls certain lines somewhat insouciantly, lending his personage a brazen quality.
In some moments he emphasises almost every other syllable with slight crescendi in a gesture comparable to reading the iambic meter of a poem with pronounced aplomb. In his declaration to Káťa, “I love you more than anything in this world (“Když vás miluji víc než všechno na svêtê!”),” Černoch almost cracks a note as a result of blatant bombasticity.
A darker presentiment than the clichéd strobe lighting used for the storm comes in the form of Susan Bickley’s Kabanicha: the chilling incarnation of a stereotypical and dictatorial villain. Curving her mezzo-soprano to make the notes resound with a contorted and frightening timbre without snapping the sound, Bickley makes full use of both her instrument and scrutinizing eyes to make the mother-in-law’s hatred of young Káťa palpable.
The tenor role of Tichon is here portrayed with the growling, emphasized lower bass notes by Andrew Staples, who deliberately executes the lines of his patriarchal and patronizing role with well-timed crescendi that heighten the unending musical drama.
Sporting long, ill-groomed curly hair and glasses in what looks like a seventies parody, Andrew Tortise doesn’t let his comedic attire disrupt the smoothness of his vocal performance, coating his lines with the eeriness found throughout the entire libretto.
Details Gone Amiss
Rhythms are adroit and punctual in Edward Gardner’s reading of the score – but finite details are relentlessly amiss. Though occasionally light tremolos on strings beam with an inauspicious effervescence, too frequently the brass are not as simultaneous as they are meshed together. Arpeggios scrambling on the woodwind instruments come out opaque in their disheveled execution. Dynamics could be much more variegated on the whole, and while the timing of the sections is proportionate and offers listeners the chance to hear these strange, ill-boding sections stealthily contending, the purity of each is obfuscated by its messiness.
Overall it’s a production which is insufficiently intimidating – much to its disservice. Where Káťa’s suicide should have her plummeting herself headfirst into the Volga River, Majeski must here go offstage. Only her dripping clothes and closing eyes as she is carried out inform us of her fatal plight.
With the composer’s enchantingly devilish score and a libretto based on Ostrovsky’s socially conscious, caustic play, “Káťa Kabanová” should be the horror movie among operas. This is a G-rated outline.