by Rachel Beaumont

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Man cannot live on baths alone: Katya Kabanova at the ROH

Katya Kabanova
Royal Opera
Royal Opera House
Stalls D13, £15 (staff offer)
6 February 2019
ROH page

I’m still waiting for my Janáček epiphany. Don’t get me wrong: Katya Kabanova is extremely pleasant to listen to. Its short duration swept me along lilting lyrical lines that meandered from quiet melancholy to plangent plaints, yielding continual gentle frissons of pleasure. The vocal lines give even the smallest parts an opportunity to shine, couching lovely singable lines in just the right part of the voice with just the right support from the orchestra, masterfully sympathetic. The story of unfair doom visited upon an undeserving female should be just what you need to round off a night at the opera.

Once again, though, I’m left unenlightened. Despite its tragic story, Katya is still to me something of a warm bath: extremely pleasant, very relaxing, not exactly exciting. Why is that? And how can I be so insensitive? The feeling lurking in my mind behind all the surface pleasure is that the opera feels oddly short, sometimes even perfunctory. The great set piece of the opera, the storm, lasts a handful of minutes; and then it’s a few short steps to polish the heroine off and send us all on our way home. I don’t think it’s that I want everything to meet Rossinian levels of shilly-shallying; it’s more that I don’t trust Janáček has written it because it has to be this way, rather than because he’d had enough.

Fans, I know, will think me soulless. My problem with the piece is maybe exacerbated by Richard Jones’s in most ways excellent production. Designer Antony McDonald has done a terrific job: the extraordinary use of a flat panel to represent the Kabanov home, either lurking menacingly at the back of the stage or oppressively crushing the characters to the front, moving with explicit malignity between the two positions – it’s a wonderful idea. But the design as a whole is out of phase with the music. By the time we get to the interval, we have seen McDonald’s best; the climax of the opera waits in the second half and is left as a second thought. McDonald and Jones’s solution for the storm is a good one, perhaps in a different context a great one – but it cannot match the masterful, shocking simplicity that has gone before it, and as a result is enfeebled.

Conductor Edward Gardner, weirdly only now making his ROH debut, marshals that Janáček soupy loveliness excellently. (He has to contend with some peculiar lapses of attention in the strings, just as in From the House of the Dead – are the string players as ambivalent about Janáček as I am?) Fluffs aside, the orchestra sploshes and splooshes about in that lovely warm bath with aplomb.

Amanda Majeski is another surprising debut; only now singing the role for the first time, it sounds like she’s been singing it since she was born. Once she overcame some outrageous sharpness in the first act she produced a magnificent performance, her voice finely matched to Janáček’s writing, her tightly focussed intensity exactly the lynchpin for Jones’s interpretation.

Of the rest of the cast, Clive Bayley as Dikoj sounds absolutely superb – each time I hear him he seems to deepen in profundity and volume. Pavel Černoch as Boris is good, but struggles to make sense of the excessively unsympathetic mantle Jones wants to force on his character. Andrew Tortise as Kudrjáš and Emily Edmonds as Varvara are sweetly matched in tone and style, two performers it is a delight to watch even if they are a touch on the quiet side. But would I see it again? No thanks.

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