Scottish Opera’s New Kátya Kabanová is Musically Strong but Intermittently Satisfying

17/03/2019

Janáček, Kátya Kabanová: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Scottish Opera / Stuart Stratford (conductor), Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 16.3.2019. (SRT)

Laura Wilde (Kátya Kabanová) & Ric Furman (Boris Grigoryevich) (c) James Glossop

Production:

Director – Stephen Lawless
Set & Costume designer – Leslie Travers
Lighting designer – Christopher Akerlind

Cast:

Kátya Kabanová – Laura Wilde
Boris – Ric Furman
Tikhon – Samuel Sakker
Kudrjash – Trystan Llŷr Griffiths
Varvara – Hanna Hipp
Kabanicha – Patricia Bardon
Dikoy – Paul Whelan
Glasha – Bethan Langford

Just like in Janáček’s opera, the river Volga is an ever-present force in Stephen Lawless’s production of Kátya Kabanová. The river’s muddy bed makes up the production’s floor, and the rushes that grow by the banks form a series of obstacles between which the characters hide from one another and from their own emotions. The setting is updated to a grim Soviet industrial landscape, where Tikhon’s workers toil in standard-issue pinafores and a rusty cantilever bridge spans the Volga. The nastiness of life’s daily grind, and the horror of the characters’ inner lives, is reflected in the sickly grey-green hue of Christopher Akerlind’s lighting, externalising the way Katya sees her life in the Kabanov household as endless, suffocating entrapment.

It is an effective distillation of the opera’s mood, but it depersonalises Katya’s story damagingly, and I always felt like I was being kept at an emotional arm’s length. Lawless stresses the blind indifference (fatalism?) of existence, which is entirely in keeping with the piece, but he downplays the emotional truth that finally bubbles to the surface in Katya’s relationship with Boris, creating a world where they barely touch one another for fear of becoming intimate. Fair enough, but it undermines the spirit of Janáček’s music, most fatally in the final scene when the strings play the most beautiful love music of the piece, but Katya and Boris stand mutely apart from one another rather than relishing their final embrace. After her death the people of the community carry on regardless, which may well be the point, but it left me emotionally cold rather than cathartically devastated.

In the same way, Laura Wilde sang Katya with lyricism and, in the first act, empathetic power, but she seldom drew me into full sympathy with her plight. Ric Furman’s light, heldentenorish voice suits Boris rather well, and Samuel Sakker’s Tikhon was an effectively hard-edged contrast. So, too, were the second pair of lovers: Hanna Hipp, an excellent communicator, made a vampish Varvara, while Trystan Llŷr Griffiths sang Kudrjash with youthful charm and vigour. Patricia Bardon sang Kabanicha with the right amount of spiteful vigour, though I wished she had been given more to do than all that malevolent shrugging. Paul Whelan’s medal-encrusted Dikoy married the comedy and nastiness very effectively.

The orchestra sounded great, continuing a recent excellent run, with beautifully mellow inner strings contrasting with a nasty bite from the muted brass. Conductor Stuart Stratford understood well how to shape the score’s developing shape, though I could have done with more passion in both the dramatic and erotic climaxes. Like the production, the music avoided extremes and trod a middle way that was only intermittently satisfying.

Simon Thompson

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