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Janacek Kát'a Kabanová
at Covent Garden & Salzburg

Conductor Charles Mackerras

Marfa Ignatevna Kabanova Felicity Palmer
Tichon Ivanyc Kabanov Chris Merritt
Katerina Janice Watson
Varvara Linda Tuvås
Savël Prokofjevic Dikoj Oleg Bryjak
Boris Grigorjevic Kurt Streit
Vána KudrjášToby Spence
Glaša Miranda Westcott
Fekluša Elizabeth
Sikora Anne Mason
Kuligin Jeremy White

Royal Opera House, London 19 June 2007

It was interesting, but salutary, to have seen this revival of this production days after Opera Holland Park's Jenufa, to which the ROH Kát'a cannot hold a candle. That Stuart Stratford and City of London Sinfonia were able to produce so fine an account of the score in the OHP "tent" owes much to the researches and persistence on behalf of Janacek by Sir Charles Mackerras.

Kát'a Kabanová is a cardboard 19C melodrama, compressed to a fault, with a denouement virtually impossible to bring off - Kát'a jumps into the river and is brought out onto stage, already drowned and dead, all within one minute; the Kabanicha thanks everyone for their services, and that's the end!

Under Charles Mackerras, at Sadlers Wells 1951 (the first performance of a Janacek opera in UK) I found it devastating. But times change, and it is hard to recall how odd, indeed bizarre, Janacek's music sounded to us half a century ago.

The singers at this revival were, to quote my companion, "quite good", but most eyes and ears were on Sir Charles, being feted everywhere for his life achievement since he became 80.

My own early memories of Mackerras include his introduction of appoggiaturas into Mozart operas (Figaro, 1965) - very daring and revolutionary - and earliest (if I recollect rightly) as a young man trying to wow the audience of children in Britten's Let's make an opera.

The strongest impression of this 1994 Nunn/Bjornson production was of the massive set which dominated the characters, topped by threatening 'Munch-like cloud-waves' (Hilary Finch). Most of the images supplied are of singers in close-up; that at the top is the only one which indicates the scale.

ROH's programme book had a selection of photos from the 1994 premiere, and I had hoped to reproduce one of the ruined building in which the populous sought unlikely shelter from Ostrovsky's storm before it collapsed, but permission is denied.

This 1994 pseudo-naturalistic production (complete with horses and cart to take Tichon away on his journey) has become dated in a way that makes it no longer acceptable.

Listen to this on the radio, when I expect the vocal characterisations to sound more vivid. BBC Radio 3 broadcasts the ROH production on 20 October and Chandos issues Mackerras's third recording of Kátya Kabanová (sung in English) on October 1.

I have found it refreshing to return to the radical Salzburg Festival production on DVD, with riveting performances by Angela Denoke and Jane Henschel q.v. my review from The Opera Critic below:

Peter Grahame Woolf


JANÁCEK's The Cunning Little Vixen & Katya Kabanova on DVD
by Peter Grahame Woolf

The Cunning Little Vixen
Eva Jenis, Thomas Allen, Hana Mutillo, Libuse Márov, Josef Hajna, Richard Novák, Ivan Kusnjer, Jean-Philippe Marliare, Sarah Connolly, Florence Bonnefous, François Martinaud
Orchestre de Paris/Sir Charles Mackerras
Stage director: Nicholas Hytner
Recorded June 1995, Châtelet Theatre, Paris
ARTHAUS MUSIK 100 240 [98.00]

Katya Kabanova

Angela Denoke, Jane Henschel, David Kuebler, Hubert Delamboye, Dagmar Peckova, Henk Smits, etc.
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Sylvain Cambreling
Stage Director - Christoph Marthaler
Stage Design & Costumes Anna Viebrock
Recorded at the Salzburg Festival, 1998
TDK DV-OPKK [107 mins]

Two of Janacek's most concise operas go well on DVD, but in the world of contemporary opera one cannot expect 'definitive' productions.

In this Vixen, the foxes are the more human and positive and the humans presented as a sad, ineffective group of people.
- - Invidious to select for special mention any single singers at the Châtelet - it is an ensemble team opera and with his
Parisian forces and an international cast Mackerras ensures authoritative musical excellence again for the DVD.

More interesting and compelling of the two is the extraordinary realisation of Katya Kabanova, astonishingly forward-looking for 1921, an operatic tragedy which takes concision to perilous extremes with only about half a minute between the heroine throwing herself into the Volga and, over Katya's corpse, the step-mother from Hell thanking the populace for their assistance!

The entire action takes place in open public view on a single set, representing the enclosed courtyard of a block of flats. People sit around throughout and can be seen through upstairs windows. There is no privacy for intimate exchanges and I came to feel that it all made sense as taking place in Angela Denoke's fraught mind with the crazy logic of a dream scenario.

In Anna Viebrock's settings the 'beautiful' Volga, extolled at the beginning, is but a tatty little picture on a wall, and later it is doubled by a fountain, with a will of its own, into which Angela Denoke subsides gracefully on stage. A strong cast is headed by Denoke, who conveys all the emotions which overwhelm her and lead to suicide as the only escape after she is let down on all sides, and by Henschel as a dominating stepmother one would wish upon nobody. Musical values are strong with the Czech Philharmonic under Cambreling; the filming is full width 16:9 ratio with excellent camera focus & sound quality; a disturbing and haunting experience and a recommendable purchase.

Peter Grahame Woolf is a classical music writer based in London.



BBC Radio 3 broadcasts the ROH production on 20 October: Chandos releases Mackerras's third recording (sung in English) of Kátya Kabanová on October 1.

Photo images of Felicity Palmer, Janice Watson & Linda Tuvås: Bill Cooper