Wednesday, February 24, 2021

KATJA KABANOVA (Wiener Staatsoper)****


By Cal


Available until: 25th February at about 6pm

I really enjoyed Mozart Week and also enjoyed Bel Canto Week and it looks like this week is Janáček Week. That sounds like quite a flippant comment, but it’s actually very exciting. While it can be nice to watch a different opera every week (or every day, as it has seemed like recently!) you can learn a lot about a composer (or a playwright or anyone else) from enjoying a few of their works in quick succession. Too many at once and it could become a bit of a chore, but a few at a time can be really interesting.

The first is Kátja Kabanová, most commonly Kátya in Britain and sometimes Kát’a, but the j in German provides the y sound so it makes sense for Wiener Staatsoper to use this spelling.

However you choose to write her name (and I’m going to stick with Kátja), the opera is about an unhappy young wife with a rather ineffectual husband, Tichon, who’s still under the control of his mother, the terrifying Kabanicha. He goes away a lot and when he does, Kabanicha turns her attention to Kátja. She has one friend, a foundling named Varvara, who is Tichon’s adopted sister, and there’s also a young man called Boris (not THAT one, it’s okay, I did say a young man) who has attracted Kátja’s attention.

Janáček’s music can be wild and passionate, but he’s also capable of beautiful lyricism and playfulness, all of which we get to hear in Kátja Kabanová, beautifully brought out by conductor Tomaš Netopil. Director Andre Engel focuses the play a great deal on Kátja’s mental instability and takes the plot in a very interesting direction when he suggests a lesbian relationship between Kátja and Varvara. It’s a lovely moment, but it’s difficult to know what to make of this as it can’t really go anywhere – Kátja already has a husband and an admirer without adding a girlfriend to the mix too, and Varvara has a boyfriend of her own, Váňa. I suppose you could say it adds an extra layer of tragedy – Kátja and Varvara can’t be their real selves so all they can do is throw themselves into relationships with men, but this would mean that the great scenes between both couples are based on a lie.

Nicky Rieti’s staging is very interesting as it almost seems to reflect the plot. At first, the locations are mostly very pleasant, but when you get to the end, the staging around her looks rough and spiky. This is also reflected in Andre Diot and Susanne Auffermann’s lighting designs, with brightness early on and darkness at the end.

Kátja is played by Angela Denoke, who gives an impressive portrayal of Kátja’s mental state. She’s a very dreamy character anyway and she is under a lot of pressure from Kabanicha to be a good wife to Tichon (though she’s very hard on Tichon too) and even, to an extent, from the well-meaning Varvara (who might even be Kátja’s first choice), telling her to follow her dreams and spend time with Boris. Her performance is very believable and very sad. She sings the role very well too, her voice soaring and falling, never losing its beauty but expressing so much.

Misha Didyk is an ardent Boris, passionate and romantic and willing to look past Kátja’s issues. Leonardo Navarro is a convincingly useless Tichon, attractive-voiced but uptight and weak. Thomas Ebenstein (no longer blacked up, as he was in Die Zauberflöte) is a playful Vaňa and he and the captivating Margaret Plummer as Varvara would have made a very sweet couple if Varvara hadn’t had even more chemistry with Kátja.

Jane Henschel gives Kabanicha a harshness and coldness in her voice without making it sound ugly, but she is very ugly in her manner. Cruel, controlling and chilling. I’m sure there are worse opera villains, but I think Kabanicha could be one of those that lingers in the memory. Horrible but fascinating.

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