Katya Kabanova - Royal Opera House, 2 July 2007
A few days ago, despite critical raves, maybe half of tonight's stalls seats for Katya Kabanova were unsold. A newspaper promotion reduced the price from £135 to £50, and bingo, the lot were filled. Proof that high prices keep many people away from opera - or that more people read the special offers than the reviews section?
For over fifty years it has been Sir Charles Mackerras's mission and passion to bring the work of Janácek to a wider public. Could there have been a more ideal conductor for this production? He brought all his experience and know how to bear in a nuanced interpretation of great delicacy and sensitivity, the orchestra responding immaculately in one of the best performances I have heard here for a very long time. Mackerras picked out the elusive feminine qualities in the scoring which contrast and complement its rawness.
Age always defeats beauty in Janácek, and often the singer in the matriarchal role can dominate proceedings too. Not so with Felicity Palmer's Kabanicha - although her caustic performance was magnificent, the other singers more than held their own. None more so than Janice Watson as Katya, her vulnerability and desperation tragically spotlit. Liora Grodnikaite, a late sub for the sick Linda Tuvås, was as impressive playing Varvara as she had been last week in her small role in Thaïs, finding the right note of bubbly optimism to contrast with the doomed Katya. Toby Spence's boyishly exuberant Kudrjáš was another highlight. Kurt Streit as Katya's lover Boris took a while to settle vocally, and generally gave a rather understated performance, as did Chris Merritt as Katya's husband Tichon - underlining Mackerras's emphasis on Katya at the unquestioned centre of the drama.
The set - a rough path spiralling up through a Munch-like stormy blue-black sky - certainly set the tone well enough, but it began to pall after a while. Director Trevor Nunn must have sensed this - why else the gratuitous equine finale to Act 1? Any punters who'd been nodding off of course perked up as Tichon's car arrived on stage drawn by two real, live, and slightly irritable horses. But really, unless you're doing Götterdämmerung, nothing signals a director's lack of faith in his production concept like sticking a live animal on stage. The collapsing wooden cross in Act 3 too seemed more of a confusing commentary on the drama than an attempt at interpretation. Simpler would have been better - but really anything would have worked with performances this wonderful.