RECENT: Find out about composers from unusual places, including Gerard Schurmann, Giya Kancheli, Nazib Zhiganov and Nodar Gabunia, about singing in cars, and meet Jim Hutton from the RLPO and some of our regular contributors in this eighty-minute February 2021 video.
We last saw Opera North's production of Janáček's Katya Kabanová, directed by Tim Albery, twelve years ago. This time round it had lost little of its fire and compassion - Theatre Royal, Nottingham, 21 March 2019.
With conductor Sian Edwards making her company debut, the orchestral introduction was charged with a real sense of tragedy in waiting; the tension embodied in the motif for high-pitched timpani - one of Janáček's most distinctive sonorities - was almost tangible.
When the curtain went up, the stiff-looking group of people silhouetted against a brightly-lit backdrop immediately called to mind the more self-righteous inhabitants of Peter Grimes' Borough, though I don't imagine Britten knew any Janáček at the time. Hildegard Bechtler's set again contrasted the dull green Kabanov interior with the more vibrant green of the natural world outside, lit to maximum contrast by Peter Mumford.
Stephanie Corley vividly captured Katya's volatility, making her desperation to escape her mother-in-law's domination as overt as she dare. We were caught up in her swirling emotions in Act II, ecstatically recalling her carefree unmarried days, then full of dread at the hidden desires that might be given their head once her husband, Tichon, has left on a business trip.
Heather Shipp's Kabanicha, Tichon's mother, was rather more school-marmy than the chilling composure of Sally Burgess's portrayal the last time round. But it was still an effective study of a character so convinced she is right that everyone else is wrong, and that's it, to the point where, in the final scene, even Stephen Richardson's Dikoy seemed repelled by her cruelty.
As the merchant whose relationship with her is never precisely defined, he was the only cast member returning to his role in the production's previous outing, all storm and bluster in the first and last acts, and revealing his weaknesses in Act II. Andrew Kennedy's permanently exasperated Tichon was clearly at the end of his tether. Harold Meers was a somewhat passive Boris, Dikoy's nephew who falls for Katya, though this was consistent with Peter Wedd's reading of the character in the 2007 run. Katie Bray's sparky, sympathetic Varvara was well matched with Alexander Sprague, similarly spirited as her lover, Kudryash.
The Opera North Chorus sounded aptly hallucinatory in the wordless passages in Act III that Janáček envisaged as the voice of the River Volga that forms a constant backdrop to the action. Balance was occasionally problematic, especially when a singer was towards the back of the stage, something I've noticed before at this venue. If the dramatic voltage seemed a little under-powered at first, this paid off in spades with the tension being relentlessly ratcheted up as the opera proceeded.
As on its previous outing, the production was played without an interval, but at least there were short breaks between acts to preserve each one's dramatic shape, though mid-act breaks for scene-shifting (behind a drop-curtain) threatened to undermine the tension. Nevertheless, the work still came across with all the elemental force remembered from last time.