Holland Park Opera have just revived Olivia Fuchs’s hugely successful 2009 production of Leoš Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová. Anne Sophie Duprels played Kát’a in the original and she is back with Holland Park again this year – but not in this opera. Instead, she’s in Leoncavallo’s Zaza, premiering on Tuesday, and her place has been taken, quite brilliantly, by Julia Sporsen.
Kát’a is a role that demands great stamina – she is rarely off the stage – but it also demands a characterisation that can show great fragility. Kát’a is a young woman on the brink. She is by turns innocent, hysterical, religiously ecstatic, as desperate in love as she is in guilt. Trapped in a loveless marriage (probably unconsummated) with a husband, Tichon, (Nicky Spence has a neat line in cringing) totally dominated by his monstrous mother, she beats her wings against her marital cage. She fears both her terrifying mother-in-law (a wonderfully witchy performance from Anne Mason as Kabanicha, if occasionally overpowered by the orchestra) and the disdainful townspeople (a chorus superbly choreographed by Clare Whistler as menacing, yet oh-so-respectable tormentors).
Her one friend is Kabanchina’s adopted daughter Varvara (a charmingly cheeky, pragmatic Clare Presland, well matched by a very watchable Paul Curievici as her lover Kudrjas). It is Varvara who opens Kát’a’s cage door – in fact the garden door that leads to the outside world – when Tichon is sent away by his mother for ten days. During those ten days Kát’a falls hopelessly for Boris (Peter Hoare in good form) who is almost as weak as her husband. But they are certainly utterly besotted – so much so they can seemingly walk on water when they step away from the paths that criss-cross the stage and into the waters of the Volga. There is a magical moment where Boris stretches out Kát’a’s arms (in a somewhat Titanic-like moment) and she soars, caged no more on the wings of Janacek’s powerful score.
This is just one of many magical moments in this production designed by Yannis Thavoris. There are, too, the massed red umbrellas of the storm scene, the blue waves suspended above the stage that foretell the inevitable ending, the impeccable chorus that flows around the stage, a tide of stern propriety.
Of course, Kát’a’s moment of freedom is not to last. Boris is a straw man, a puppet of his awful Uncle Dikoj (an excellent Mikhail Svetlov whose spanking by Kabanicha is the comic highlight of the night). Boris is appalled when Kat’a, overcome by guilt, confesses their affair to her husband on his return. He accepts his uncle’s sentence – to go to Siberia – and leaves Kát’a to her fate. And this is, Virginia Woolf-like, to load her pockets with stones to weight her down in the depths of the Volga.
This is a dazzling production, more than matched musically by the City of London Sinfonia under Sian Edwards, who from its first plangent chords, give full force to both the lyricism and force in Janáček’s score. Passionate, intense, shocking – a great night at the opera.
Kát’a Kabanová at Investec Opera Holland Park on selected days until 28th July 2017. Sung in Czech with English subtitles. Production images by Robert Workman. For more information and tickets please visit the website.