United Kingdom Janáček, Katya Kabanova: Soloists, London Symphony Chorus (chorus master: William Spaulding), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 11.1.2023. (JR)
Janáček – Katya Kabanova (concert performance)
Amanda Majeski – Katya
Simon O’Neill – Boris
Katarina Dalayman – Kabanicha
Andrew Staples – Tichon
Ladislav Elgr – Kudrjas
Magdalena Kožená – Varvara
Pavlo Hunka – Dikoj
Claire Barnett-Jones – Glasha / Feklusha
Lukáš Zeman – Kuligin
When American soprano Amanda Majeski sang the title role in Katya Kabanova in her house debut at the Royal Opera House recently (review click here), it had the critics reaching for their superlatives. Those who, like me, missed those performances were therefore more than keen to hear her – and she was simply stunning. This was only a concert performance, not semi-staged, with a few of the singers injecting some facial expressions and minimal gestures into their performance. For the love duet, Majeski and Simon O’Neill (Boris) went backstage to re-appear in the window of the wall at the rear of the platform. Majeski inhabited the role of Katya with every facial feature, but it was the voice which truly amazed. Angelic at first, then in Act III more dramatic. Majeski has also sung the role at the Concertgebouw, in Chicago and elsewhere. She must be the Katya of the moment.
Majeski was very ably supported by Swedish mezzo (former soprano) Katarina Dalayman as Kabanicha, the demanding and heartless mother-in-law, who was suitably frightening and in piercing voice, and by Magdalena Kožená as Katya’s cheeky sister Varvara, who sang with clean tone and in idiomatic Czech (Kožená was born in Brno, close to the composer’s birthplace Hukvaldy). New Zealand tenor Simon O’Neill certainly had heft to spare as Boris, though is perhaps better suited to Wagner’s heldentenor roles than this one where more vocal beauty is required, and the odd top note was slightly strained.
Andrew Staples was a robust Tichon, tenor Ladislav Elgr, another Czech, sounded authentic and was sweetly toned in his melodic contributions. Sir John Tomlinson was indisposed, so in stepped Pavlo Hunka as Dikoj; he was darkly impressive, both for his singing and acting skills. Sarah Pring was also indisposed and replaced by Claire Barnett-Jones, a finalist and winner of the Dame Joan Sutherland Audience Prize at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2021. She did not have much to sing as the servants Glasha and Feklusha but impressed with her dark timbre and volume when she did: audibly a rising opera star. Czech baritone Lukáš Zeman also delivered the minor role of Kuligin with distinction and confidence.Sir Simon Rattle was in complete command on the podium, in a work he has conducted since his student days and the work fits him like a glove. An ardent, physically powerful performance, delivered by the London Symphony Orchestra in full bloom, on its very best form. The London Symphony Chorus trooped on and off into the auditorium to give its short contributions, always to very good effect, especially at the close of the work. This Katya Kabanova was wisely given without an interval, yet the two hours flew by: the dramatic tension never allowed to be lowered.
It was splendid to have the huge orchestra on stage, rather than obscured and squeezed in an opera house pit, to deliver the full force of Janáček’s magnificent score, as well as highlight the many orchestral colours and bash out the eight-note motif (four Fs, then four B-flats, first heard on the timpani) which pervades the work. It is only early January but already many will have heard a musical highlight of the year. If in or near London, grab – if you can – a ticket for the second performance on 13 January. The rapturous applause would have gone on and on, had not the orchestra called it time.
The soloists wore microphones: the performance was recorded for LSO Live and will also be available on Marquee TV from 2nd February.