Katya Kabanova, Janácek

English National Opera

17th March, 2010


There is a sublime contradiction in Katya Kabanova. In its realistic depiction of characters in a suffocating small town with Janácek’s almost obsessive fidelity to the sound of everyday speech, its style is seemingly aimed at realism, and yet it is far from real life. It is the story of Katya’s life as she feels it. Janácek understood something truer than literal truth. He miraculously knew how to reproduce those very inaccuracies, aberrations, and transformations of reality that occur in the human heart.

If it is a story as Katya feels it, should the telling of it help us understand why she feels it, or should it get out of the way?

It was a fine evening at the opera with some truly moving performances. However, moments in this performance were so good, so exciting, they made the less good aspects glaringly obvious. The production searched for a way to physically define Katya’s story but could not decide between a minimal approach allowing the audience to experience the piece more intensely without distractions, or a realistic approach allowing the audience to experience the place and time of these characters. Ultimately, it settled on a murky almost-minimal approach where ideas were unclear and questions abound.

The empty space included a large, partially whitewashed plywood wall askew on a rake with a similarly whitewashed backdrop. Stark lights downstage left and right cast shadows on the wall. (If only my description ended here!) Maybe without the random set pieces (a Russian Orthodox painting of Christ, ornate wooden chairs, a communist-propaganda style billboard), this could have been a brave, exposed approach, out of the way of the piece. As it was, it felt like an attempt to fill an uncomfortable void with stuff.

The costumes varied so widely in style that the characters appeared to either be in different productions or we were watching a rehearsal. Similar to the set, the costumes provided no help in identifying these characters in this town, and furthermore, they distracted.

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Photos by: Clive Barda/ENO

Even in the staging, there were several awkward moments: a Dirty-Dancing-like lift in the love scene between Boris and Katya; odd literal interpretations of text (e.g., as Boris sings, “Oh how my heart beats,” he grabs his heart like he’s having an attack); Act III storm effects sadly left to a few cast members upstage doing their best “I’m being blown over by a storm” impression while Kudriash sang downstage astonishingly untouched by the storm’s effects. Given a second look, these minor adjustments—given the talent of this director and these singers—could have brought us that much closer to the heart of the piece.

Yet, great things did indeed happen. The thought-provoking effects of the characters’ shadows on the upstage wall offered a glimpse of what could have been had this production taken a genuine minimal approach. The choice to perform without interval (Janácek also preferred it without interval) was much appreciated and kept the dramatic pace humming along.

The stirring, intense performance of Patricia Racette ultimately led us out of the woods. Etched in my mind is the scene when Katya reveals her innermost thoughts to Varvara in Act I. As Ms. Racette sang with beautiful ease and simplicity, one had no choice but to agree with Varvara’s first act line, ”How could anyone not love her?” Thus the magic of the evening began. When we encounter her in the Act III storm, lost and alone, again Ms. Racette sang with a tender sound, downstage of the proscenium, directly into the hearts of the audience.

The orchestra, led by Maestro Wigglesworth, provided all the accompanying musical shades of thought, wonderfully guiding us through the waves of Katya’s emotional phantasmagoria.

Other outstanding performances included Anna Grevelius as Varavara, whose assurances (sung with a pretty voice) gave us hope for Katya. Alfie Boe’s Kudriash provided utter confidence vocally and physically. John Graham-Hall perfectly embodied the subtlety of Katya’s feeble husband Tikhon, never commenting on his character’s pathetic nature, making the end horrible to watch as he discovers his dead wife.

At the end of the evening, the power of the piece was honoured. Ms. Racette bowed and the crowd erupted. Flashes of brilliance brought us into contact with what could have been.


Bottom line: A thrilling performance of this extraordinary piece, but...


Lewis Marceau


response to this review: response@operaticus.com

Production Credits

New Co-production with Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, Lisbon, and Teatr Wielki-Opera Naradowa, Warsaw

Conductor: Mark Wigglesworth
Director: David Alden
Set Designer: Charles Edwards
Costume Designer: Jon Morrell
Lighting Designer: Adam Silverman
Movement by: Maxine Braham


Kabanicha: Susan Bickley
Tikhon: John Graham-Hall
Katya: Patricia Racette
Varvara: Anna Grevelius
Dikoy: Clive Bayley
Boris: Stuart Skelton
Kudriash: Alfie Boe
Glasha: Valerie Reid
Kuligin: Nicholas Folwell
Feklusha: Michelle Daly