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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.

that’s right, Kat’a has a dark cloud over her head and the waters are quickly rising to engulph her…

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!
Tichon: Mum!
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!

Later:

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.

[edit]: 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.


  1. 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. 
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ROH 2018-19 Winter Season now on general sale

It started yesterday, whilst I was merrily lounging in bed but I still got tickets to the Queen of Spades and Kat’a Kabanova at leisure just now. Kat’a is especially cheap (Queen is not). Here‘s the rest of your options.

So after that somewhat Pelleas at Glyndebourne, Herheim comes to ROH for the Queen of Spades, whilst it’s up to dehggi favourite Richard Jones to tackle Kat’a, which also sees Amanda Majeski’s debut at ROH. Very curious about this.

2016 Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance (ROH, 17 July 2016)

It’s that time of the year again, time to close up shop for the Summer at ROH (the weather yesterday suggested just that: don’t stay indoors!) but not before the annual Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance. Let me remind you I also wrote about the 2014 and 2015 JPYA Summer Performances.

If you read any given article about opera in the local papers you’re sure to run into comments like “cut the state funding, it’s entertainment for the rich”. That being the current attitude, the trend of using all purpose boards as stage design comes in handy once again. For our five opera excerpts we had the same boards passing as garden wall, hospital ward, art exhibit, bohemian hovel and party hall. I bolded the ones I thought worked best.

Since I’ve been very happy of late with minimal stage design I wasn’t bothered by the paucity of detail. The Summer Performance is about young singers getting experience singing on the main stage. Now the cast has already had more than one occasion to sing in ROH productions but they perhaps haven’t had to carry important scenes before.

A weird thing having to do with these boards (I guess?) was that whenever the singers were positioned further back (though never too far, as the boards split the depth of the stage in half of its usual size) or to the sides their voices sounded louder and more metallic. This was consistent for all of them and not something you normally hear at ROH.

Janáček: Kát’a Kabanová, Act II, scene 2
Conductor: Paul Wynne Griffiths
Katěrina (Kát’a): Vlada Borovko
Varvara: Emily Edmonds
Boris Grigorjevic: Samuel Sakker
Vána Kudrjáš: David Junghoon Kim

My experience with Janáček is limited to The Makropulos Case and The Cunning Little Vixen, neither of which has been a mainstay on my playlist but I have been left with a good feeling after each listen. Same here, the orchestral writing made a very positive impression on me. I have also enjoyed the (appropriatedness of the) folk tunes the servant characters have as basis for what they sing. David Junghoon Kim hammed it up with gusto as Kudrjáš and was my favourite in this scene.

The libretto, on the other hand, is so melodramatic! In this scene, married Kát’a and her hopeful suitor (Boris Grigorjevic) have barely said hello, I love you (let me jump in your game, as The Doors would put it) and she’s already omg, I have committed a great sin and I must suffer! Way to put the cart before the horses. Anyway, what they end up doing doesn’t much sound like suffering to me. Though I understand it’s all downhill from here. Thankfully we were spared that.

Though Maestro dug out quite a few interesting details, I thought his fs were too loud, having heard Wagner and Strauss in this very hall. He returned to this trend in further scenes but the singers competed well, though one would wonder how they’d have fared at that volume over a three hour opera.

Gounod: Mireille, Act IV aria
Conductor: Paul Wingfield
Mireille: Lauren Fagan

Weirdly enough I studied (excerpts? of) Mireille (the poem) in French class about, ahem, 20 years ago. Which means this is all I remember about it and only because the girl who “played” Mireille in class was cute. So I don’t know if having a still confused Mireille recovering from a suicide attempt makes sense with the story but this is what we got. Wiki says this about the scene:

Mireille, staggers in already tired, and dazzled by the sun, faints as she hears shepherd’s pipes in the distance. She makes a last effort to continue her journey.

The aria is about going on in spite of many setbacks and it contains religious references, so might as well. Fagan showed total commitment and some nice skills where dynamics were concerned. I’m not the biggest fan of her tone but her stage presence was strong.

Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin, Act III, scenes 1 and 2 (excerpts)
Conductor: Jonathan Santagada
Tatyana: Jennifer Davis
Eugene Onegin: Yuriy Yurchuk
Prince Gremin: James Platt
Guests: Vlada Borovko, Lauren Fagan, Emily Edmonds, David Junghoon Kim, Samuel Sakker, Samuel Dale Johnson and David Shipley

As I was saying, the boards worked very well with this scene since it looked like the party was in a very contemporary (think Shoreditch) exhibition space. This is the scene where Prince Gremin sings praises to Tatyana (now his wife) which work a little too well on Onegin. It’s almost like he falls in love with her on the basis of Gremin’s appraisal alone (we could have a staging where Gremin is a car salesman, eh?).

Then there’s the scene where Onegin shows up at her house (I love it when this happens in opera, a character is thinking about someone in a very private space and somehow that very person comes out of the woodwork 😀 ) and professes his suddenly undying love to her. This gives her the opportunity to remind him how he’d rebuked her when she wasn’t fashionable and married to a rich man.

Before the show started we were told by Holten that Jennifer Davis (Tatyana) was under the weather but I didn’t particularly notice anything. Yurchuk as Onegin was appropriately moody but this year he didn’t stand out to me quite as much as last year as Michonnet.

James Platt (much enjoyed by me in previous outings, particularly as Caronte in last year’s L’Orfeo) was such a charismatic Gremin, he stole the scene(s). His rendition of the aria in praise of Tatyana ended up being my favourite thing of the afternoon. His tone lent itself beautifully to the aria, his phrasing was spot on and he seemed to relish singing it. He also looked like I imagined Gremin would.

Interval

Leoncavallo: La bohème, Act IV
Conductor: Paul Wynne Griffiths
Mimì: Lauren Fagan
Musetta: Emily Edmonds
Marcello: Samuel Sakker
Rodolfo: Samuel Dale Johnson
Schaunard: David Shipley

Did you know Leoncavallo wrote his own version of this tearjerker? Well, I didn’t but he did. It’s a bit different (properly verismo, makes the libretto used by Puccini look like a bourgeois fantasy of poor artists’ life) but Mimì still dies. Samuel Dale Johnson as Rodolfo pulled out some proper Italianate pathos. I really enjoyed David Shipley’s Schaunard here, he was very good as comic relief and had a nice, even tone. The crap fast food grub he brings his friends was a nice touch.

Strauss: Die Fledermaus, Act II finale (excerpt)
Conductor: Paul Wynne Griffiths
Rosalinde: Vlada Borovko
Adele: Jennifer Davis
Ida: Lauren Fagan
Prince Orlofsky: Emily Edmonds
Gabriel Eisenstein: Samuel Dale Johnson
Dr Falke: Yuriy Yurchuk
Colonel Frank: James Platt
Guests: David Junghoon Kim, Samuel Sakker and David Shipley

This was odd but then that party is one of the (if not the) weirdest parties in opera. As it was the closer, (most) everyone came on stage in their previous costume. Dead Mimì was pulled to her feet and Fagan became Ida without further ado. Then everybody paired up in more or less surprising ways, some of them not straight. It had an air of improv to it but the audience enjoyed the levity after so many dead serious scenes and such a comprehensive zoom through operatic languages.