If I say that this story came to mind while watching Opera North's production of Katya Kabanova I should make it clear straight away that I have a deep love for Janacek's music. I should also say that the orchestra played with vitality for conductor Sian Edwards and, on its own terms, hers was a gripping account of the score. The trouble was that we had an intimate domestic drama being played out on stage, and a foil-blown epic erupting from the pit.
To accommodate the large orchestra, the pit at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham, where I saw this production on Mar. 21st, extended well out into the auditorium and a large part of it was therefore open. This must have contributed greatly to the imbalance of volume, and singers were often only just audible. Quieter orchestral playing was called for in many places, though I am not sure everything would have fallen into place even once the balance problems were solved.
Tim Albery's production was perfectly straightforward, telling the story clearly, with the focus on detailed interaction between characters. Hildegard Bechders costumes and sets were in period, the small-scale simplicity of the latter making positive use of the constraints of a touring production to conjure up the deadly claustrophobia of Kabanichas household. The choice of an English translation (by Norman Tucker) enhanced our connection with the action. The cast had clearly been encouraged to project lightly where possible and not to be afraid of blurring the line between speaking and singing.
All this would have worked beautifully in an arrangement for reduced orchestra, performed in a small theatre. In fact it seemed so apposite to the drama that one might have concluded that Janacek was the one who got it wrong. However, we know that the opera works when done big--I remember a Royal Opera House production in the 1990s when a team of live horses brought a wagon onstage for Tichon's departure. That was the sort of presentation that Sian Edwards's interpretation would have fitted.
Stephanie Corley gave us a highly charged Katya, a portrayal that suggested her character's mental instability was not entirely the result of domestic circumstance. The voice burned brightly throughout its range, though 'beautiful singing' was neither aimed for nor achieved. Finding three high tenors with individual timbres is always a difficult task outside Slavonic countries, but Harold Meers (Boris), Andrew Kennedy (Tichon) and Alexander Sprague (Kudryash) fitted the bill well enough. Kennedy had a neutrality of tone in accord with the weakness of his character; Meers' singing was the least precisely placed, but again that appropriately conveyed repressed passion; Sprague had an openness and warmth, neither edgy nor too sweet, that fitted well with his characters calmer nature.
Heather Shipp nude a suitably chilling Kabanicha, with telling moments of passive aggressiveness and subtle emotional manipulation rather than constant battle-axe inflexibility. Her scenes with Stephen Richardson as a brusque and nervously energetic Dikoy worked particularly well. But only one singer seemed truly able to reconcile the interior drama onstage with the expansive one being played out in the pit, and that was Katie Bray as Varvara. This was the only fully operatic singing to be heard, completely controlled, genuinely lovely and entirely expressive of her character's situation. Moreover, she moved naturally; the other cast members (excepting Kabinicha, who was mostly seated) often walked stiffly to their marks and stood there waiting for the next cue.
This is the latest iteration of an Albery/ Bechtler production that has served Opera North for quite some time now. I see no reason why it could not work with different singing actors; I see no reason why this cast, with a little more work on movement and projection, could not give us an involving account of Katya', and I see no reason why, with some adjustment of dynamics at several points, Sian Edwards's reading of Katya could not work with this production. But on this occasion it didn't all come together. --Brian David
Caption: Scene from Opera North's Katya Kabanova