Katya Kabanova – opera in three Acts to a libretto by the composer after Alexander Ostrovsky’s play The Storm [sung in Czech with English surtitles]
Katya – Amanda Majeski
Boris – Simon O’Neill
Kabanicha – Katarina Dalayman
Tichon – Andrew Staples
Kudrjas – Ladislav Elgr
Varvara – Magdalena Kožená
Dikoj – Pavlo Hunka
Glasha/Feklusha – Claire Barnett-Jones
Kuligin – Lukáš Zeman
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 11 January, 2023
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Like many of Janáček’s mature operas, Katya Kabanova is so rooted in the particularities of the time and place in which it is set – though such are the human interests at play that they can be easily adapted to other contexts – that it doesn’t matter if the work is removed from the stage entirely and performed in concert, as here. Furthermore I, for one, when hearing Janáček become so mesmerised by the taut conversational interplay between words and the musical setting that stage action can almost seem a distraction, and so the lack of any dramatic concepts or choreography hardly proves problematic.
Unsurprisingly, Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO bring out a symphonic sweep in the three-Act score, played without an interval here in barely 105 minutes. Even so, their performance is richly and seamlessly sinuous, with a splendid array of sonorities blended by the instruments, rather than cultivating Janacek’s typically rhythmic terseness. The orchestra rarely stand back, relative to the voices, and instead of setting up a dynamic, sonic nervous system for the singers to flesh out in their dialogue, here the work often seems more an extended tone poem, with the vocal parts simply overlaying it to give verbal expression to its narrative trajectory. Drama arises from the evolution of marvellous sonorities created by the LSO, often evoking the late Germanic Romanticism of Richard Strauss in its broad scope, or Korngold in its lustrous effects on the music’s surface, beginning with an atmospheric prelude, and ending with the strings’ tragically frenetic, hysterical convulsions at the conclusion, surely anticipating the composer’s later ‘Intimate Letters’ Quartet. Along the way snarling or howling brass give particular impetus, while deeply expressive combinations of woodwind among themselves or sometimes with strings add a note of tenderness or sorrow.
Amidst all that instrumental activity, Amanda Majeski stands out in the title role, offering a resilient, soaring lyricism to characterise Katya’s inward bravery, despite her outwardly timid nature, which tends to be accompanied by a palpable glow in the orchestra. Her perseverance is demonstrated with musical finesse in her monologues, and duet with Boris, especially when she first appears in Act One, as she veers between joy and remorse, disenchantment with the present and hope for the future, nostalgia and pain.
With effective miming and distinctive vocal presences, the other parts are also dramatised cogently. As Katya’s equally disaffected husband Tichon, Andrew Staples sings urgently, depicting his conflicted state of mind, torn as he is between his duties to Katya and to his overbearing mother, Kabanicha. In her account of the latter role, Katarina Dalayman is aptly hectoring, almost fiercely stuttering in her odious self-confidence and righteousness, remaining icily commanding as she thanks her fellow townspeople when they gather round in sympathy at the death of Katya.
Simon O’Neill’s somewhat nasal constriction in tone makes Boris sound suitably harassed and desperate until he opens out more as he and Katya develop their illicit passion, projected at the end of Act Two’s duet from a recess at the back of the Barbican’s stage to create ambient depth. Pavlo Hunka, standing in for Sir John Tomlinson, is a bluff Dikoj, Boris’s oppressive uncle and guardian of his inheritance. Ladislav Elgr and Magdalena Kožená provide some levity in contrast, he as a suavely playful Kudrjas, who has a liaison with her Varvara, perky and knowing, and both offering uncomplicated strains of passion and benevolence in this work.
Microphones were present at this performance, both for a forthcoming broadcast and to set it down on disc for the orchestra’s CD label, LSO Live, preserving this vivid and colourful interpretation for posterity.
Further performance on January 13; broadcast on Marquee TV on February 2