Royal Opera House, London Until Feb 26
This is the first of the four late operas on which much of Janácek’s reputation rests. Here it is done full justice by a predominantly British team, led by director Richard Jones, including conductor Edward Gardner – late of English National Opera – who here makes his belated Royal Opera main-stage debut.
Katya Kabanova was first introduced to the UK in 1951 by my old friend Charles Mackerras, and was the first Janácek opera to be performed in Britain. Mackerras praised its ‘dramatic impact’ and the ‘yearning, lyrical beauty’ of the score.
A score, he wrote, that will strike many listeners as a fascinating amalgam of Mussorgsky, Debussy, Sibelius and Mahler!
The predominantly British team, including Andrew Staples as Tichon (above), do full justice to Katya Kabanova, the first of the four late operas on which much of Janácek’s reputation rests
Gardner brought all this out on the opening night, on an evening when the orchestra, especially the upper strings, surpassed themselves. It was a triumph for the American soprano Amanda Majeski, who brought a Wagnerian intensity to her compelling portrayal of the tragic heroine Katya.
A fine, mainly British, supporting cast backs her up, led by Susan Bickley as Kabanicha, the ghastly mother-in-law. Andrew Staples is her wussy son (and Katya’s husband) Tichon. Clive Bayley contributes a memorable cameo as Dikoj, the hectoring uncle of Katya’s insipid lover Boris, sung by Pavel Cernoch.
Also worthy of high praise is the Australian mezzo Emily Edmonds as Katya’s sister-in-law Varvara, and her lover Kudrjás, a spirited performance by another Brit, Andrew Tortise.
American soprano Amanda Majeski brought a Wagnerian intensity to her compelling portrayal of the tragic heroine Katya. It’s a shame that this fine production will not appear in cinemas
As I listened, especially to Bayley, I had to ask yet again why the casting director here so often picks indifferent overseas singers in supporting roles, when there are so many good Brits around, such as Bayley.
Antony McDonald’s designs will seem austere to some, but for me, the bare walls fit well the sense of imprisonment that the wretched Katya continually feels, bullied by her stepmother, regularly beaten by her pathetic husband and hounded by other male inhabitants of this gruesome little town on the banks of the Volga, into which she finally, despairingly, throws herself.
Unlike so many modern opera directors, who regard the plot as a nuisance to be supplanted with their own ideas, Jones and his team are totally faithful to Janácek’s intentions, and they produce an evening that no opera-lover should miss.
A shame, then, that it’s not in the cinemas. Disappointing that one of the best nights at the Royal Opera in many a month will be seen only by the mainly well-heeled, with ready access to London.
ALBUMS OF THE WEEK
Schubert: Symphonies Nos 3, 5 and 8 Chandos, out now
Abbado Rediscovered Deutsche Grammophon, out now
The Fifth and Eighth of Schubert’s symphonies crop up on two releases just out, with quite different results.
Edward Gardner was the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s principal guest conductor from 2011 to 2016, and together they have come up with a good-value, 74-minute issue, with neat, well-turned performances in Schubert: Symphonies Nos 3, 5 and 8.
It’s a back-handed compliment, though, to observe, as I must, that the most convincing reading here is of the clever little Third, written when Schubert was 18 and free from any of the dark eddies that later permeated his music. After a decent enough Fifth, the least satisfying performance here is of the Unfinished (the Eighth), a work left as a torso of two movements when Schubert was traumatised by learning he had syphilis.
Claudio Abbado’s (above) Unfinished on Abbado Rediscovered is in a different league to Edward Gardner’s take on the same symphony found on Schubert: Symphonies Nos 3, 5 and 8
Claudio Abbado’s Unfinished on Abbado Rediscovered, though, is in a different league to Gardner’s. This is a dark, deep, profound account of a symphony that Abbado held dear. He chose it for his first concert as principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1989, and it opened his final concert in Lucerne in 2013. He died a year later after a 15-year battle against cancer.
The remarkable thing about this performance is that it has been dug out of the archives of the Vienna Philharmonic from 1971, when Abbado was only in his 30s. It’s a thought-provoking performance, well matched by Schubert’s Fifth, in which an unusually attenuated slow movement – almost three minutes longer than Gardner’s – finds eloquent pre-echoes of the mindset of the Unfinished.
The Vienna Philharmonic play beautifully throughout, making the CBSO sound, in truth, a bit provincial.