Warm Reading of Janáček’s Katja Kabanova with Simon Rattle as Conductor

Janáček: Katja Kabanova, Staatskapelle Berlin, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Berlin Schiller Theater, 25.1.2014. (JMI)


Staatsoper Berlin Katja Kabanova Staatsoper    (C) BERND UHLIG
Staatsoper Berlin
Katja Kabanova

Katia: Eva-Maria Westbroek
Kabanicha: Deborah Polaski
Boris: Pavel Cernoch
Tichon: Stephan Rügamer
Dikoj: Pavlo Hunka
Kudriach: Florian Hoffmann
Varvara: Anna Lapkovskaja
Kuligin: Roman Trekel

Production: Brussel’s La Monnaie
Direction: Andrea Breth
Sets: Annette Murschetz
Costumes: Silke Willrett & Marc Weeger
Lighting: Alexander Koppelmann

One of the great attractions of this trip to Berlin was the chance to attend a performance of Katja Kabanova with Sir Simon Rattle leading the musical direction, Andrea Breth’s staging (which was highly acclaimed at its premiere in Brussels) and Eva-Maria Westbroek at the head of the cast. The end result was not what I expected regarding the cast and staging, although the musical side left nothing to be desired.

This production by Andrea Breth, one of the most recognizable figures in German theater direction, had its premiere in 2010 at La Monnaie in Brussels and was well received by audiences and critics. The production is in the Regietheater style, so popular in Germany. From my point of view it’s a production that offers very interesting points together with some other, more questionable, ones.

The performance starts with the prelude in a totally darkened theater, giving an air of mystery to the sound coming from the pit. When the stage is lit, we are in a kind of ruined room with a dirt floor and some motionless characters, including Dikoj asleep on a chair with his feet resting on his nephew Boris. In the center of the stage is an open lighted refrigerator, where we discover the protagonist of the opera, Katja. All the drama will take place on this same stage.

Andrea Breth’s direction has some positive points and clearly defines the characters, from Kabanicha and her submissive son, whom she bathes like a child in a tub, to the relationship between Varvara and Kudriach, which has very little romance and lots of quick sex. The stage work has a good many figurative and symbolic elements of which I’m not very fond since it takes a lot of effort to try to understand what the director means by the symbols. The Volga, so important in this opera, is symbolically represented by a bathtub, where Katia will finally commit suicide. To this list could be added a plastic bag with a little fish that Kudriach brings on stage. What the fridge with Katia inside means is beyond my imagination and my skill to resolve hieroglyphs. In the different scenes the characters involved at any point do not disappear but rather remain silent on stage, as if they didn’t exist anymore. The appearances of ecclesiastical processions are effective in presenting the double moral standard of Kabanicha, but it seems debatable that they would convert Kuligin, Kudriach’s friend, into a priest.

The unique sets are rather confusing throughout while the costumes are suited to the production. The direction is quite good and, in short, it is a superb production for fans of modernism, so fashionable nowadays in some countries, and much more open to debate for simple opera goers.

Surely we can all agree  –  modernists, pseudo intellectuals, nostalgics and opera lovers in general –  that the musical direction by Sir Simon Rattle was magnificent. The same can be said of the outstanding Staatskapelle Berlin. When an opera has  a great conductor and an exceptional orchestra the result is like touching heaven with one’s hand. And so it was here: rarely has Leoš Janáček been better served than on this occasion. I think this time I found Sir Simon more inspired and convincing than ever.

Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Katja Kabanova was one of the great attractions of this performance. She is one of the leading singers of recent years and a very intense performer in all her roles. Last year I attended her Minnie in Frankfurt, and I wrote that her top notes were tighter and more whitish than before, but that she was still a great artist. The same can be said of her Kabanova. Her interpretation seemed flawless and fully convincing, but vocally she is not at the same level as some three years ago.

Veteran soprano Deborah Polaski gave life to Kabanicha and figured prominently in the performance, but vocally she is in a sorry state. Tenor Pavel Cernoch was fine in the character of Boris. His voice is attractive and meets the characteristics of a lyric tenor. Stephan Rügamer was a suitable interpreter of Tichon.

The couple in love was performed by tenor Florian Hoffmann as Kudriach and mezzo soprano Anna Lapkovskaja in the part of Varvara. She offered the most interesting voice of the entire cast, cool and well-modulated. Both expressed their feelings very well.

Pavlo Hunka Dikoj was adequate, although I find his vocal performance has declined since a few years ago. Roman Trekel was good as Kuligin, as were Emma Sarkisyan (Glascha), Adriane Quieiroz (Feklusha) and Blanka Modra (Woman) .

The Schiller Theater is still the headquarters of the Staatsoper Unter Den Linden as  the reconstruction of their theater seems to be moving at a slow pace. The theater was sold out, and the audience gave a warm welcome to the artists, with the biggest cheers for Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Staatskapelle. Among the singers the only bravos were dedicated to Eva-Maria Westbroeck and Anna Lapkovskaja. The creative team was warmly received, although there were also some boos.

We left the theater to the pleasant temperature of 13 degrees below zero. Then I understood replacing the Volga with a bathtub.

José Mª. Irurzun