Friday 1st February 2019 – gripping new Royal Opera production shows the value of good direction.

Up betimes and on the 8.18 Eastbourne to Victoria for a new production of Leos Janacek’s opera Kat’a Kabanova (*****). Your man has clear recollections of Glyndebourne’s 1988 production with Felicity Palmer in the title role. Its pared down but vibrant designs by Tobias Hoheisel - all striking colours, blue skies, sandy soil, stylised cornfields symbolising the Russian steppes – were in stark contrast to the powerful and visceral events portrayed. I was quite prepared (perhaps especially after the disappointments of The Queen of Spades – see post for January 10th) for this Kat’a to pale in comparison with those blue (sorry!) remembered glories. I was wrong. Very wrong. This was, across the different aspects of opera production, one of, perhaps even the most, potent and persuasive dramatic performances I’ve seen at Covent Garden since I started visiting in the early 1980s. Let me go through some of the reasons why. Beware – MANY SPOILERS.

In Acts I and II designer Antony Mcdonald captures the oppressive atmosphere of the grim household and small town Kat’a has moved to following her marriage to Tichon. The house is a bourgeois merchant’s house with a bay window – the wall we see is reversed to show the exterior in Act II. There are glass cabinets filled with shiny gewgaws. The locals periodically stare in through the window, as if there is nothing better to do – which we suspect there isn’t. When Tichon heads off on a business trip at the end of Act I he does so in a vintage Moskvitch car. In Act III how do you portray the banks of the Volga? Mcdonald cleverly gives us a 1930s modernist steel and glass seaside shelter, again reversible, in which the crowd can shelter from the storm, and stare and point at Kat’a who has blurted out that she has been unfaithful while Tichon was away.

McDonald’s designs dovetail perfectly with director Richard Jones’s overall concept, and Sarah Fahie’s movement direction. Crowds sashay, crowds swirl, crowds freeze-frame, in tune with the events taking place. They even become the maelstrom of the river itself in which Kat’a drowns herself. And Jones/Fahie do not miss fine details. When Kat’a meets her lover Boris for the last time, after she has confessed, Boris is being sent away. They embrace, but Boris’s hands are rigid and will not hold her tight.

This close attention is matched in the pit by conductor Edward Gardner. The events on stage are mirrored by precise accenting that reminded me of the young Simon Rattle. The orchestra responded with playing of a high order.

The mainly young cast all fully infuse their roles with convincing and individual character. American soprano Amanda Majeski, in her house debut in the title role, was able to sing with considerable power and richness of tone, whilst remaining vulnerable from the outset. An astonishing performance. Emily Edmonds as Varvara, the Kabanov’s ward who suggests that Kat’a meet Boris while her husband is away, is convincing as a sexy free spirit and her boy-friend Vana (Andrew Tortise) is a long haired tee-shirted hippy who yearns for more than this small Russian town can offer. Pavel Cernoch, a Czech tenor, plays the very straight laced Boris putting up with his appalling father Dikoj’s criticism in the hope of one day inheriting. Dikoj (Clive Bayley) is a monstrous character who, when drunk, lusts after Kat’a’s even more horrifying mother-in-law from hell Kabanicha, brilliantly played by Susan Bickley. There is something of the Rosa Klebb about her portrayal. She demands that Kat’a shows her equal respect to that she gives her husband – i.e. even more. After Kat’as lifeless body is brought on Tichon blames Kabanicha for her death, and we feel this is entirely just.

At the end your man was left breathless and speechless – as I think were the rest of the audience. Bravo! Bravo!

(Kat’a Kabanova has three more performances at the Royal Opera House 18, 21, 26 February. Tickets still available at time of posting this review. Catch it if you can.)

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