A common enough complaint about the opera, certainly in my experience, is that it is not as relevant to modern life as other art forms: television, film or novels. Richard Jones’ production of Katya Kabanova, however, proved that opera remains thoroughly in touch with modern life. This is not to say that other operas do not explore themes that remain central to society throughout history but Katya Kabanova deals with pertinent topics of today: marriage breakdown, addiction and the slowly diminishing power of the Church.
Janácek's piece was written in 1921 and performed in the same year, whereas the original piece was set in Imperial Russia, Richard Jones, the stage director, updates the setting to the 1970s replete with flared jeans and printed shirts. The story is one of a woman, Katya Kabanova, in a trapped marriage who seeks solace in the arms of another, Boris Grigorjevic. The husband, an alcoholic named Tichon, shows some affection for her but their relationship is put under immense pressure by Katya’s mother-in-law, the formidable Kabanicha. Unlike the forceful matriarchs of the jolly world of Wodehouse, Kabanicha is no Aunt Agatha. Kabanicha is a cruel and vindictive woman who incessantly demeans Katya, but she is just one small part of the claustrophobic society in which Katya is trapped.
© Clive Barda
Less tangible, but just as present as the mother-in-law, is the overt religiosity of the society. The idea of sin, moral retribution and divine punishment are all very real concepts. However, this is where Richard Jones’ decision to modernise the period in which it is set seems ill-advised. Any sense of verisimilitude is lost by having costumes similar to outfits at Woodstock proclaiming eternal damnation. Location updating in certain scenes also reduces the dramatic effects considerably. Act III, for example, has a scene, which centres on confession and divine revenge through the means of a storm. Originally set in a church but changed for this production to a bus shelter, it inhibits any sense of potency that the scene previously had.
© Clive Barda
The storm itself, however, was done very well with the use of strobe lighting. It is indicative of a wider ingeniousness when it came to stage settings and effects. Having all the members on stage freeze for a good few seconds in some scenes is quite extraordinary, and brilliantly performed. The decision to stage the entire opera in a towering plywood box to emphasise the confinement of Katya may seem heavy-handed but it doesn’t disturb the production and more familiar props are contained within it.
While the decision to modernise the opera was somewhat hit and miss, the cast was tremendous. Amanda Majeski, playing the eponymous Katya, makes a bold debut with a voice that carries with it the sheer sorrow of her character. Also on debut, was the conductor, Edward Gardner, who, despite being a very popular composer, has never performed at the Royal Opera House. His ability to gently coax to orchestra was on full display, and will serve him well if he hopes to take over from Antonio Pappano as the Royal Opera House’s music director in 2023 when Pappano’s contract expires.
This production shows a wider keenness for Janácek’s work, with it being the second of the Royal Opera House’s Janácek cycle and another two Katya Kabanova productions currently on in Leeds and Newcastle. The recent popularity for Janácek’s work may seem somewhat odd, however, as this production shows, his work puts a mirror to the society which we inhabit and helps us better understand it.
Edited by Dimitrina Dyakova
February 4 - 26
Tickets: £26 - £125
Royal Opera House
Covent Garden, London WC2E 9DD