Olivia Fuchs’s production of Janáček’s unflinching portrait of poor Katya Kabanova, crushed by her husband Tichon and her awful mother-in-law, the Kabanicha, and then destroyed by guilt when she finds love elsewhere, has not been seen here since 2009, but this first revival proves it to be one of Opera Holland Park’s most potent offerings.
You might have thought that Fuchs’s big ideas – updating it from a dead-end Russian village in the nineteenth-century to Chekhovian bourgeois respectability in the 1920s (when the opera was first performed), and her stylised, overworked use of the chorus (which only does any singing in Act Three) to ram home through well-drilled mime and movement the community’s rigid conventionalism – would derail Katya’s simple tragedy, but it doesn’t get in the way of what Katya is up against when she takes her adulterous, self-destructive path to self-fulfilment. Fuchs’s direction in this respect never falters, and Julia Sporsén rises to the occasion in her portrayal of Janáček’s fatally imaginative, innocent and big-hearted anti-heroine. She is a fine actor who sings Janáček’s speech-inflected vocal lines with electrifying fluency, and she conveys the character’s strength and vulnerability with focused verismo.
It’s just a pity she falls for dreamy, selfish Boris, performed with needy ardour and a hint of Tennessee Williams’s “charm of the defeated” by Peter Hoare. Fuchs doesn’t spare Tichon, Katya’s husband – a hip-flask dependent, sweaty non-entity, whose notion of marital bliss doesn’t get beyond rapist groping – and, like Hoare, Nicky Spence is an accomplished singer-actor. Paul Curievici and Clare Presland as the sweet young lovers Kudrjaš and Varvara (the latter is pregnant) were shrewdly directed to twist the knife in Katya’s misery. It is Varvara, after all, who sets Katya and Boris’s affair in motion.
At the curtain-calls, Anne Mason was booed like a pantomime villain. She had, though, made a good job of the Kabanicha’s brutal vindictiveness barely concealed beneath sober respectability, and it is not her fault that the staging makes the role appear to be sketchily written. Mason’s voice doesn’t have the necessary size, but she is an intimidating figure all the same – and Fuchs’s direction leaves in no doubt that the Kabanicha really hates men, as demonstrated by her dominatrix dealings with Boris’s equally brutal uncle Dikój, a bruiser of a portrayal from Mikhail Svetlov.
Yannis Thavoris’s set lightly defines the Kabanova house and the flat banks of the River Volga, in which Katya drowns herself, and it doesn’t compete with the detail of Fuchs’s direction. His 1920s’ costumes have a sepia elegance straight out of those photographs of the composer’s life and times, of him on holiday in a fashionable spa. Sian Edwards draws some powerful, idiomatic playing from the City of London Sinfonia, and she is a natural when it comes to releasing Janáček’s fleeting tenderness and realising his extraordinary powers of musical characterisation. The end of Act Two, with Katya and Boris stepping out on the road to ruin and the natural fading light deepening the shadows was, to paraphrase slightly the opening of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, “the saddest story you have ever heard”. Janáček and his Katya have rarely been so incisively served.