Janácek’s Kátya Kabanová, a new co-production between Scottish Opera and Theater Magdeburg (of Germany) is at The Festival Theatre Edinburgh this week (Thursday 21st and Saturday 23rd March) and it is truly a tale of fate and the many dark thoughts that ultimately engulf our titular character Kátya Kabanová.
First performed in 1921 and based on the 19th century work “The Storm” by Aleksandr Ostrovsky, Kátya Kabanová is at times an odd blending of two stories, the two very different worlds of the original story setting with masters and servants of the Merchant Classes of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Era setting of this world. Exactly where our timeline here is set is difficult to say as fashion wise we could be in the late 1970s, or more likely, the 1980s, but who can date anything really from Soviet Era clothing styles. Whenever our story line truly is staged, it is backed up with very realistic stage design (set & costume designer Leslie Travers) and some atmospheric lighting (lighting designer Christopher Akerlind). As a story, Kátya Kabanová needs bridges and impressive bridges we get as they are raised and lowered as required in this production. One draw-back from this though is that, although this may work perfectly as a design and production element in the sight-lines of the stalls, from higher up and further back in the theatre there are at time headless figures as these bridges obscure sight-lines from this viewpoint.
What really drives this story though is the thought of being irresistibly drawn to another person who is really for you a “forbidden fruit” and how fate can play all of us like chess pieces. Here, Kátya Kabanová (Laura Wilde) is irresistibly, almost uncontrollably, drawn to Boris Grigoryevich (Ric Furman) and this forbidden attraction Janácek himself truly understood as Katya is based in part on his own attraction to Kamila, the much younger wife of an army officer. In Janácek’s case though, their relationship was platonic and Kamila was very much his inspirational muse.
There are elements to this story that so many people will readily identify with as they seem to be timeless global themes. One of these elements is the mother-in-law from hell who cannot accept that another person is now the love of her son’s life and still wants to control him while at the same time letting his wife (and everyone else) know that, in her eyes, she is just not good enough or suitable to be married to her precious son. Here Patricia Bardon is obviously relishing her role as Kabanicha with a performance that could easily fit into a Bette Davis screen role. Trapped forever it seems in his mother’s iron grip is Tikhon Ivanish Kabanov played by Samuel Sakker.
One of the most obvious things for me in this production is just how cinematic it is, and the width of the Festival theatre stage combined with our raised and lowered bridges created an almost “wide-screen” cinema presentation to us. The music of Janácek in another twist of fate sounds perfectly suited to a film soundtrack. At times Kátya Kabanová (Laura Wilde) reminded me of an early film screen tragic heroine too. Oddly though, there are times here when the music and the story line seem at odds with one another as soaring emotionally uplifting music contrasts with very dark story lines.
Kátya Kabanová is not just an operatic role though, it is a demanding dramatic role too, and Laura Wilde is so good at both of these requirements. Kátya is a very troubled woman and has been for a very long time, and Laura Wilde gives us a good insight into the many vulnerabilities in her character and the many demons that are haunting her. Kátya is not really a tragic heroine in the classic opera sense of the word, she is a victim and there is a similar darkness to other women in Janácek’s operas – Jenufa being another one that immediately comes to mind. There is a very dark element here of almost victim shaming and blaming of women in these stories that is at odds with our thoughts on these issues now. Any story of course is a reflection of its times and sometimes you just have to accept that fact, even if your personal views are different.
Kátya Kabanová is probably getting closer to “social realism” in this production than “tragic opera” and visually is very reminiscent of films of that genre and part of that realism is some interesting sub-stories between characters. We get to know Ványa Kudrjás (the school-teacher played by Trystan Llyr Griffiths) and Varvara (a foundling played by Hanna Hipp) for all too brief a period, and this is a pity as they are the two people who give this story in this production its contemporary relevance by the way they dress and act. Paul Whelan gets a fine, almost comedic role here too as Dikoy (uncle of Boris) and a very small scene between him and Kabanicha illustrates the hypocrisy of the rules and regulations that Kátya is forced to live under.
As always, fine vocal performances from everyone on stage backed up with some good dramatic performances. Director Stephen Lawless, conductor Stuart Stratford and The Orchestra of Scottish Opera and chorus of course have to have their credits listed here too.
Review by Tom King