An opera in three acts can often generate a foreboding feeling – as much as we love Wagner, Tristan und Isolde is a marathon piece (don’t even get me started on The Ring Cycle). Enter Leoš Janáček – Kát’a Kabanová plays at a speedy 90 minutes plus interval and is considered one of his finest works.
Not for its length mind, but because Kát’a Kabanová fuses a Czech folk song style, traditional Romanticism in all its opulent grandeur, and the modern turbulence of twentieth-century dissonance. Everything about this work indicates a mature composer at the height of his powers – even the subject material is inspired by a love affair and obsession Janáček had at 63 with 25-year old Kamila Stösslová. It’s not difficult to see the reflection of his life in this bittersweet piece.
Yannis Thavoris opts for an abstract design, focusing less on the period and more on the emotional state of each character. Serene, fluid, blue hues mimic the lazy meandering of the Volga, upon whose banks illicit love affairs take place. A rotating cage provides both shelter from the oncoming storm and a prison of shame and guilt in which Kát’a herself (Julia Sporsén) inhabits, sewing to pass the time and to distract her from an adulterous dilemma. Olivia Fuchs’ overall direction feels fresh and contemporary, yet modest – it modernises an already progressive piece of work further.
There are a number of successful pairings within Kát’a Kabanová, ironic considering the inability of the heroine to pick a man herself. As the lead, Sporsén is wracked with a powerful guilt, torn between duty and love. She throws light and shade freely into her performance, intermingling tenderness with an assured vocal tone. This is an experienced soprano whose nostalgic arias soar through fortepiano dynamics and are reassuringly supported by a sympathetic orchestra.
Conductor Sian Edwards brings together a sound that is respectful of both singer and musician, completely complementary of Janáček’s skill at fusing timbres together. All of this climaxes in the final scene of the play, where Kát’a reaches her peak bereft state, losing both husband and lover to controlling parents. The swell to the pinnacle of this aria makes for an all-encompassing wall of sound bearing down upon the audience, simultaneously Romantic and discordant. There is no doubt that this is the final straw, a harsh brass section that announces the unmistakable culmination to this particular work.
Kát’a Kabanová is a story about a woman’s choice between men and yet in this particular cast, it is the pairing of the two lead females that is strongest. Varvara (Clare Presland) and Kát’a are thick as thieves, both in character and in harmonic synchronicity. Presland is a young mezzo destined for great things – her Varvara is full of spunk and drive, progressive but still proficient against her more experienced co-performers. She takes a leaf from Sporsén’s book, managing to be both authoritative and coy as a carefully hatched plot brings Kát’a and her illicit love Boris (Peter Hoare) together.
As love-torn Boris, Hoare’s mature tenor fails to stand up to his counterpart’s powerful soprano – the duo makes for a beautiful match, but it is all too obvious that Sporsén dominates here. However, on his own, Hoare has a soft timbre that manifests itself in the highly emotive top notes in his register. It’s a quality that the other male performers fail to match, although Varvara’s love interest Kudrjaš (Paul Curievici) comes closest with his strong, assured middle range.
Fuchs’ vision marries with Janáček’s compositional style in a modern interpretation of an already progressive work. Kát’a Kabanová feels like it could have ended no other way – every choice Fuchs makes leads the audience towards an inevitably tragic conclusion, but one that is poetically conceived and beautifully realised.
Kát’a Kabanová is at Opera Holland Park until July 28th. For more details, click here.