World-class music, heavily symbolic staging: Glyndebourne's Katya Kabanova reviewed

5 June 2021

9:00 AM

5 June 2021

9:00 AM

Katya Kabanova

Glyndebourne, in rep until 19 June

At the first night of Glyndebourne Festival 2021 there was relief and joyful expectation as Gus Christie made his speech of welcome. Never mind the hit to takings from the closed bar and the necessarily half-empty auditorium; never mind the scaled-back orchestra and abridged score. The new production of Katya Kabanova provided the thirsty opera-goer with a long cool drink of world-class music and heavily symbolic staging.

Janacek’s exploration of a yearning female psyche has parallels with Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. It lives or dies by its lead, and the Czech soprano Katerina Knezikova excelled as Katya. Casting off her worldly glamour, she was utterly convincing as the soulful provincial wife whom Janacek conceived as ‘gentle by nature, a breeze would carry her away’. She sang with delicacy and power, even when fitting herself into a small iron birdcage, which was then raised cautiously aloft, a place of refuge turned gibbet. (I had not realised how much I had missed watching the exquisite torment of singers squeezing themselves into ambitious directorial conceptions.)

This new production is by garlanded mid-career director Damiano Michieletto, making his Glyndebourne debut. His big idea was setting the opera inside the mind of its tragic heroine, all maddening white light and hallucinatory angels. It was left to conductor Robin Ticciati to conjure the Volga and surrounding natural world, which he did ably despite restrictions.

We have had three new Kabanovas in the past decade, including Richard Jones’s Olivier-winning 2019 staging for the Royal Opera House. But where these previous versions have emphasised continuity with Jenufa by playing up the social claustrophobia and mob mentality of the small village beside the Volga, this reading was uniquely internalised, chorus off-stage and Katya trapped within white walls. These closed in on Katya as her surly spouse Tichon (Nicky Spence, admirably controlled) went away, leaving her in the ‘care’ of his mother (distinguished Wagnerian Katarina Dalayman). That role has become increasingly Trunchbull-like, although Dalayman was able to bring a humanity. Praise is also due to Alexander Vassiliev as the swaggering businessman Dikoj and to Aigul Akhmetshina as the flirty Varvara, a foil to the tormented Katya. These were characters realised as if through the eyes of Katya herself.

Magritte was referenced with the arrival of a large rock which was as light as air. Poor Katya’s soul was presumably as unlikely to reach heaven as this rock was to fly. It descended in a bird cage and was forgotten, lying portentously downstage right. (I tried to banish from my mind images of the polystyrene lump being spray-painted in Glyndebourne’s new props studio.)

A mute, pale, fiery-haired male angel, also intermittently caged, looked rather too much like Prince Harry for everyone present to take the conceit seriously (due to no fault of the actor Robin Gladwin), until his feathers were mercilessly plucked by mother-in-law Kabanicha, the ripping sound boldly adding to Janacek’s descriptive sound world. Katya’s fall into the Volga was represented with a startling coup-de-théâtre which I shan’t reveal, except to say that those bird cages may never be the same again. The singers, anyway, were wonderful, whatever one felt about the cages and rocks.

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