Scottish Opera Katya Kabanova
***** 5 Stars
Katya Kabanova is a powerful study in hypocrisy, matriarchal dominance and bullying. Based on a Russian play – The Storm by Alexander Ostrovsky – it illuminates the contrast between the old-fashioned, matriarchal society and the more forward-looking and egalitarian society which is trying to overthrow it.
Kabanicha, mother of Tikhon, foster-mother to Varvara and mother-in-law to Katya, rules her family and household with a rod of iron. She despises Katya, losing no opportunity to belittle her, and encourages her son to be equally cruel to his wife. Tikhon professes to love her but is unable to stand up to his mother. Katya is a young woman with a gentle affectionate nature, who is slowly withering under this treatment. She is further tormented by her own longings, which she sees as sinful, for a young man Boris: he is equally in love with her, but from afar, not daring to speak of his love. Varvara, however, is more than happy to creep out in the evenings to meet up with Vanya by the river. Kabanicha herself is not immune to the blandishments of Boris’s uncle Dikoy, who exerts a similarly despotic rule over his nephew, knowing that the young man has to be subservient to him if he is ever to receive the inheritance his parents left him.
Kabanicha orders Tikhon to go away on business. Katya pleads with her husband not to go, but he says he’s been ordered to by his mother, so must go: she asks to go with him but he refuses her. She begs him to make her swear an oath not to speak to any strangers while he’s away – but he doesn’t. He leaves, and the inevitable happens – Katya, knowing she shouldn’t, takes the opportunity Varvara offers her to escape from the oppressive household and meet Boris down by the river. Tikhon returns unexpectedly, Katya, riven by guilt, confesses her infidelity and slowly starts to unravel mentally: bereft of love, bullied and humiliated at home, she is driven to suicide. Her husband is distraught: her mother-in-law wraps her cloak of self-righteousness around her and thanks her neighbours for their help…
Designer Leslie Travers has produced a most impressive set – two metal footbridges crossing the river can be raised, lowered, and even slanted, while the space revealed beneath them is first the claustrophobic household in which Katya suffers and then, escapes through a sliding door to the sunlit, golden, reed-fringed riverbank in which the lovers find each other and in whose rain-swelled waters Katya eventually seeks respite from her tangled emotions. The costumes spoke volumes, too – Katya in a simple white dress, which she smeared with mud after she had “fallen”: Kabanicha was tightly wrapped in a black coat when outdoors and equally constrained indoors by her tight, dark frock. Boris, as befitted someone growing up in the ‘civilisation’ of Moscow, sported a very smooth suit and shoulder-length hair, while his uncle Dikoy’s coat was covered in medals from his past military ‘glory’. Varvara was only too happy to strip off her ‘peasant’ dress and headscarf and put on [and remove!] much more modern skirt, top and ankle boots when she met up with Vanya.
Laura Wilde brought enormous sensitivity and a gloriously gleaming soprano to the role of Katya. Patricia Bardon gave us a superbly bitter and repressed Kabanicha: when booed at her curtain call, smiled and mouthed “sorry!”. Tikhon [Samuel Sakker] was a superbly spineless mummy’s boy: Boris [Ric Furman] was elegant and sang well but somehow never swept me off my feet – that was done effortlessly by Vanya’s Trystan Llŷr Griffiths whose lyrical tenor and cheerful personality was a perfect foil to the feisty Varvara of Hanna Hipp, refusing to accept the constraints and conventions of her mother’s household, and more than happy to plan to run away to Moscow with her lover. Paul Whelan was a horribly uptight and dictatorial Dikoy, who nonetheless managed to attract Kabanicha’s attention – while profoundly disapproving of her daughter’s conduct it seems she wasn’t averse to a little extramarital canoodling herself!
The orchestra under Stuart Stratford was superb, as ever: their music revealed the turmoil of emotions under the characters’ restrained vocal lines as this thrilling opera wound its way to its desolate conclusion. There was loud applause for cast and creatives at the final curtain. It’s ironic, perhaps, that Janáček wrote this opera, and the other works of genius of his last year, as an expression of his own passion for a much younger, married woman – would that Katya could have had a happier fate…
Scottish Opera presents Katya Kabanova, Theatre Royal, Glasgow until Sat 16th March, The Festival Theatre, Edinburgh 21st – 23rd March for tickets go to: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/katyakabanova or https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/scottish-opera-katya-kabanova/theatre-royal-glasgow/