Thursday, 18 March 2010

Katya Kabanova, English National Opera

With English National Opera's new Katya Kabanova, we get the next instalment of David Alden's striking, realist Janáček productions. The bar had been set high by his previous ENO staging, a strong Jenůfa. I remember then, as now, an unusually steep rake to the stage. Indeed Patricia Racette's intensely characterised Katya is required to walk along the edge of it, which, along with placing an icon on her drawing room wall, exposes Alden's tendency to over-egg.

Generally allergic to being patronised in a theatre, I'm happy to recall that this didn't bother me too much. Janáček in general - Katya in particular - is powerful, compressed opera, made up of of pulsing (aching) units of music that seems to burst from one another. The music tends to the extreme and demands action of the same heightened realism. The 'walking a tightrope' analogy may be trite in itself but the rather uncomfortable sensation I had watching Racette undertake her direction* is entirely in keeping with the score. There's plenty more where that came from, too.

It's a staging of mixed fortunes though. I loved the simplicity of moving the diagonal backdrop to the opposite diagonal for the exterior-to-interior change of Act 1 but I didn't buy the highly stylised staging of the Act 3 storm. In general though, I think the uncluttered set design works in the piece's favour. Neither does Alden try to do too much fill it.

The singing is very strong, Racette well-cast on vocal grip alone. She's partnered with Stuart Skelton who I found a good but not overwhelming Grimes. His Boris may be summed up in the same manner. The less hysterical parts of Vanya and Varvara were quite beautifully sung and acted by Alfie Boe and Anna Grevelius, whose contrivance of honest, youthful love overcame both the metaphor and impracticality of the hard stage rake.

Susan Bickley knocked me out in The Gambler last month and I was salivating at the prospect of her Kabanicha, which didn't disappoint. I also really liked John Graham-Hall's Tichon, although I always see Graham-Hall rather than his character on stage. It's a personal thing.

Above all, I really loved Mark Wigglesworth's sculpting (a carefully chosen word here, as he kept a tight gesture-to-sound/phrase ratio on the go) of the score. The music's a slippery beast, loving but tourettish and yet it always rang out with purpose. The company orchestra were above averagely good. A satisfying evening in the Coliseum.

*Of course, I might not have been quite so flustered had not a soprano managed to fall off the front of the stage (also in a Czech opera) at Glyndebourne last year.

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