Leoš Janáček - Kátja Kabanová
Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna - 2017
Tomáš Netopil, André Engel, Dan Paul Dumitrescu, Misha Didyk, Jane Henschel, Angela Denoke, Leonardo Navarro, Thomas Ebenstein, Margaret Plummer, Marcus Pelz, Ilseyar Khayrullova, Caroline Wenbourne
Staatsoper Live - 27th April 2017
In some ways the tale of Kátja Kabanová fits the opera template perfectly, not least in its story of a tragic heroine who is destroyed by the hypocrisy of the society around her. Janáček's treatment of Ostrovsky's drama 'The Storm' however is a rather more unconventional opera in terms of its dramatic structure and musical arrangements. Perhaps no more so than any of the composer's other operas, it nonetheless has a unique blend of elements that is distinctly Janáček; the music incorporating folk elements, its rhythms and vocal lines matching those of the spoken voice, creating a unique fusion between the characters and the society around them as well as giving expression to the composer's own personal life experiences.
More than simply play along a conventional line of dramatic points, Kátja Kabanová attempts to let the essence of the experience arise naturally out of a number of little episodes. It's an evocation of time and place, specifically a small provincial village on the Volga in Russia around 1860, but as the issue isn't forced, it's possible to recognise the more universal qualities that can relate to other similar situations, particularly in the context of a young woman feeling hemmed in by a loveless marriage and the pressures of social expectation that restrict free expression of her own personality.
It could easily be relocated then to other times and places. The first time I saw the opera staged was in Paris in 2004, where Christoph Marthaler's production (originating from the 1998 Salzburg Festival) depicted the drama and the social oppression as one existing in an old Soviet tenement block, the Volga a fountain in the courtyard. Robert Carsen, by way of extreme contrast made the Volga the centre of the drama, filling the whole stage with water, the romantic free flowing river reflecting Kátja inner nature while also serving as a grim and constant reminder of the stagnation of her own waterlogged life.
André Engel's production of Kátja Kabanová for the Vienna State Opera sets the drama in what looks like a poor East European immigrant community in New York sometime in the first half of the 20th century. The Volga that Vána Kudrjás admires at the start of the opera, in what is one of only a few stranger twists applied to permit the relocation to work, is actually a bottle of imported Russian vodka. Corresponding locations to the Russian village of the original are not hard to find in this city setting, with a grim tenement block the home of the small immigrant community, a rooftop location the place for her secret assignation with Boris, a yard to shelter from a thunderstorm and a back alley leading to the river all filling in adequately for the original locations.
It's not a spectacular set - it's certainly nothing like Carsen's drowned world - but it does speak of the impoverished life lived by these people. Not necessarily in monetary terms - although there is very much a distinction and class snobbery that divides the business men and the ordinary people - but in spiritual terms also. In another of similar contrasts or paradox, religion also determines behaviour in this community, but there is very little that is spiritual about it, religious morality being used hypocritically on the part of Dikój and Kabanicha to satisfy their own particular desires or ambitions and put down those who they accuse of not measuring up to expectations.
The production at least highlights these social divisions as the cause of Kátja's unrest by putting a little more emphasis in certain places. Dikój and Kabanicha's little affair is shown to be a little more sordid, Kátja's prayers are made before a priest, and the guilt and accusations that she applies to herself in Act III are emphasised by her oppressors appearing nightmare-like dressed in mourning black to haunt her. Kátja's tragedy is that she places too much faith and trust in practices employed by these hypocrites that are used to repress her true and better nature. It's not Kátja who throws herself into the Volga but her accusers who urge her on, as they would have done in with adulterers in the past. Kabanicha's disrespect for the drowned young woman in this production adds another level of shock to an already dark ending.
Tomáš Netopil also finds the darker edge that lies in the music but also recognises that Janáček's music is not so plainly descriptive of the drama or even one single underlying mood, but carries within it a number of contrasting emotions. The choral refrains of folk songs in the final scene are haunting but also beautiful, reflecting the contradictions within Kátja's mind, longing to be free as a bird, but caught in the pull of the flow of the Volga. The musical performance matches the impassive realism of the work, which is restrained and interiorised, binding those contradictory sentiments to the world and the society that gives rise to them.
Although it is effective in its own way, the slight over-emphasis of the production doesn't bind itself to the drama quite as well as the music. Neither does the singing. Interestingly for me, this production has the same Kátja and Kabanicha's as the Paris production I saw 13 years ago; too long ago to assess how Angela Denoke and Jane Henschel compare in those roles now. Certainly Henschel still cuts a formidable figure as Kátja's tormentor, but Angela Denoke on this performance alone is less than ideal. Although reaction tends to be mixed to some of her recent performances, she is still be a force to be reckoned with when dredging up deep emotional turmoil in characters like Kundry and Alceste. She characterises Kátja well, but her pitch is too wild and erratic to sustain the flow of Janáček's vocal writing and its relationship to the music. Misha Didyk's voice can also be something of an acquired taste and it doesn't always work for every role, but he is a good Boris, singing the role with all that pitiful romantic passion that is helpless against the social order and ineffectual when it comes to Kátja's dilemma.
Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live