Tragedy on the banks of the Volga

Stephen Rooke as Tikhon, Amanda Roocroft as the tragic Katerina Kabanova and Leah-Marian Jones as the domineering Kabanicha. Pictures: Robert Workman

Katya Kabanova

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome


THIS is a rather splendid portrayal of Leoš Janáček's tragic opera about loveless marriages, affairs and guilt all in a wonderful set from Vicki Mortimer.

The mention of sets so early is usually review-speak for finding something, indeed anything,  good to say about a production but in this case they truly were a star in their own right.

Mortimer uses a sort of three leaf, photographic shutter effect of three white screens, two horizontal and one vertical, which provide a stage which can be cropped to any  size.

We open with a boat station waiting room on the Volga, move to  the austere hall of the Kabanov house,  and slowly getting smaller the dining room and then smallest of all the house garden and its birch trees, like a postcard portrait.

Any thoughts that only gynaecologists will have a clue what is going on if the shutters close in much more are dispelled right at the start of the Act II though when a ruined church in the rain becomes  cinemascope before we return to the  larger aperture of the boat station for the tragic and inevitable end.

Fated love: Amanda Roocroft as Katerina Kabanova with her lover, Boris Grigorievich, sung by Peter Wedd

The sets and costumes are straight from the 1950s, vaguely East European in flavour and with the colours and lighting you used to see in old magazines and those wonderful post-war British Rail posters.

That is the stunning visual element of the production, always interesting, and overlaid on that is the music, directed with a mix of urgency and passion by Lothar Koenigs. The music is lyrical and expressive of the emotions of a woman locked in a difficult marriage with a harridan of a mother-in-law who strays in search of unconditional affection.

Wracked with guilt she finds no escape but to take her own life which finally brings her husband to his senses.

The music stands on its own as an orchestral piece but another layer is added with some wonderful singing. As an opera with no arias we are left largely with recitative which means unless you happen to be fluent in Czech there is a lot of neck craning as surtitles effectively become sub-titles rather like watching a foreign film.

Amanda Roocroft's fine soprano revels in the title role from her happy tales of the innocence of youth with Varvara, her foster sister-in-law to the guilt of adultery and the crushing weight of a marriage devoid of affection or compassion.

Patricia Orr, as the Kabanov foster child has a girlish charm about her and a clear messo-soprano voice which exudes optimism and happiness. Indeed she is the only one who has a happy ending in the whole sorry mess, escaping with her lover Vanya (Andrew Rees) a local schoolteacher, before the Kabanov world falls apart.

Leah-Marian Jones gives a deliciously wicked performance as rich widow Kabanicha - her late husband was probably more than delighted to go

Leah-Marian Jones as the rich widow Kabanicha, the mother-in-law, and why stop the, the mother from hell, is wonderful. I could quite happily have strangled her myself, in time to the music of course, with less than half an hour gone.  Her controlled contralto voice expressed her opinions in two ways nasty and marginally sweetened nasty. She got some well deserved boos at the end. She earned them.

Tichon, Katya's wife, gave us an excellent portrayal of a man under the thumb of a domineering mother who loved his wife, but only on the few occasions his mother allowed it.

Then there was Boris, nephew of a rich merchant, who is in love with Katya. When Katya, wracked with guilt , confesses her affair with him to a packed crowd sheltering from the rain in a ruined church – nice and discrete then – they are both ruined.

He heads off to his uncle's factory in Siberia. She to the depths of the Volga whence her body, in a remarkably dry dress, is recovered and handed to a husband who has at last learned to stand up for himself and grieve, blaming his mother for everything.

Heady stuff with three elements, visual, music and singing combining to tell a tragic tale.  18-11-11

Roger Clarke



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