Kat’a Kabanova and Richard Jones, a match made in small town hell (ROH, 9 February 2019)
Small town mentalities, mother-in-law from hell + traditional woman’s role (aka, guilt over even existing) = the river Volga looks mightily inviting.
Katerina (Katya): Amanda Majeski
Boris Grigorjevic (the lover): Pavel Cernoch
Marfa Ignatevna Kabanova (Kabanicha): Susan Bickley
Varvara: Emily Edmonds
Vána Kudrjáš: Andrew Tortise
Tichon Ivanyc Kabanov (the husband): Andrew Staples
Glaša: Sarah Pring
Savël Prokofjevic Dikoj: Clive Bayley
Kuligin: Dominic Sedgwick
Fekluša: Dervla Ramsay
Conductor: Edward Gardner | Chorus and Orchestra of the ROH
Director: Richard Jones
Doesn’t sound like the kind of opera I’d rush to see but Janáček’s libretti are always worth your while (it’s 1921, after all, not 1840). The story is repugnant on all levels yet somehow the way it’s told does not insult the contemporary Western intelligence. It also helps that it’s directed by Richard Jones.
As you can imagine with Jones at the helm, whatever humour there is (and, surprisingly, there is) gets a very evident and effective treatment. That’s very welcome (and clever for those who have hired him) because otherwise this opera is as depressing as those facepalm gems Lucia di Lammermoor and Madama Butterfly. (I’m aware both are actually sympathetic to their heroines but it doesn’t make it any better; we still have these self-sacrificial role models perpetuating the mentality that you either conform or die, no matter how much we all think you’re actually a decent person).
Normally I’d roll my eyes at the MIL from hell trope, because it portrays (older) women in that ugly, mysoginistic manner etc. On the other hand, traditionally, Eastern European MILs do tend to be overly protective of their perfect progeny and very distrustful of anyone they ever date, let alone marry, because who could ever be good enough for their genius babies, right? The tendency to insert themselves in the young ones’ marriage is a reality. Another reason I put my eyeroll back on its shelf was because the way the libretto treats this – here overblown – state of affairs is very funny. The MILzilla (Kabanicha) wastes no time before starting with her complaints. To say she’s unrealistic, uncooperative, implacable or childishly jealous of her daughter-in-law doesn’t even start to cover the extent of her tantrum (the role of Kabanicha is an extended tantrum that puts the Queen of the Night to shame).
Some gems from the libretto:
Kabanicha (to her son): you love your wife more than you love me!
Kabanicha: what if she had a lover?
Tichon: but she doesn’t!
Kabanicha: but what is she did?
Tichon: … I’d still love her.
Kabanicha: you’re a moron!
Kat’a: why must you go [to Kazan Market]?
Tichon: because Mum said so. [Kabanicha: if you really loved your Mum, you’d go to Kazan Market.]
Kat’a: must you go? I feel something terrible is going to happen to me if you go.
Tichon: yes, if only to get away from here.
Kat’a: take me with you!!!
On the other hand, the hard done by Kat’a gets a really beautiful aria from which we learn of her lofty imagination and her (sadly very repressed) adventurous spirit. Anyone who’s ever lived in a small town knows that the only place imagination and adventurousness gets you is in trouble. Small towns thrive on conformity and propriety (although we also soon learn that the staunchest uplholders of those qualities are also very hypocritical).
So for having a “fairytale” MIL and a downtrodden daughter-in-law, paired with benevolent but ineffective men (Kat’a’s husband, Tichon, and her lover, Boris), the libretto is unexpectedly balanced by the existence of a second young couple (the sidekicks), Varvara and Vána. Vána is a scientist and Varvara is a right on sister, who willingly assists Kat’a with her issues and tries to cheer her up, offering a lighter, more pragmatic view of the world. This couple is quite clearly pitted against the Behold God’s wrath! old skool mentality, embodied by Dikoj (Boris’ cantakerous uncle) and Kabanicha. This happens during the storm scene, when Vána and Dikoj face off (to humorous effect) over “what is a storm?” So the future is yet bright (Vána and Varvara go together to Moscow, where we all hope their enterprising personalities will help them thrive).
For whatever reason, the couple Kat’a and Boris is much less successful. Probably this has something to do with the dying class – nobility, undone by the limitations propriety and the rest of that stylised form of existence puts on its healthy development.
I’m not familiar with the music enough to make extensive comments, but I will say that the singers were supported with care by Gardner and the interventions by various winds and brass sounded particularly good. In the title role we had Amanda Majeski, who has so far been known to me only as Vitellia to JDD’s Sesto way back in 2014 (Chicago). Live she made a very good impression on me, both vocally and dramatically. I wouldn’t mind hearing her Vitellia again 😉 even though these two roles are as far from each other as it gets. It’s that kind of nicely rounded soprano voice that has various colours to work with and she knows how to handle it.
As far as acting, she was completely immersed in this sad role and shone in the aria I mentioned above, where Kat’a talks about her dreams of soaring above the drab and stifling world1 she lives in. This appears to have been her ROH debut, and I hope to see her again in some interesting roles, mind. Please, ROH, don’t bury her in the same old. And if we can have Tito back at ROH sometime in the next decade, I’m definitely not going to be one to complain 😀 In any case, she got a very warm welcome in the house and the word on the street is equally as positive. Welcome to London 🙂 With Brexit looming, we might end up welcoming a lot more American singers of this calibre… that would be the good side of things.
The others did well, too, of course especially Bickley, who chewed scenery with the best of them as the self-righteous busybody Kabanicha. As unpleasant an cliche as it is, she made the role quite hypnotic in its small-town diabolique manner.
: The last scene was – totally unexpected – the most Russian thing I’ve seen on an English stage (true, I have not seen many Russian things, but I have seen Jones’ decidedly un-Russian 2016 Boris Godunov, one of his less successful productions, as far as I’m concerned). The spirit seemed just right to me (the main trio: Tichon holding the dead Kat’a, with Kabanicha tugging at them).
It was an evening equally as rewarding as it was frustrating, which is a good thing if you’re relaxed enough to put up with 😉 Jones has been on a roll for a few years now, so I would suggest you don’t miss his productions if you’re a fan of good theatre. But dress lightly, especially in the Upper Amphi; the heaters are on full blast.
This was my first return to ROH after it has completed its refurbishment of the Amphitheatre lounge. They have done a very good job integrating it with the rest of the ROH design, congratulations. It’s swanky but not obnoxiously so. After my travels around Europe, I think it’s still got the coolest lounge areas of all the major theatres.
- Two men to my right were discussing – somewhat mockingly – the cheap looking beige panneling that was the constant background to the proceedings. I was a bit surprised that it needed explaining. For my part, Jones’ ideas and Antony McDonald designs were spot on and smoothly clear at every turn: the hippie young couple proclaiming nature was beautiful, the “squares” with their ’50s style clothes and furnighings etc. ↩