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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.

ROH rumours up to 2021

Fantastic ROH news:

During this extended period there will be 2 (yes, two) new Handel productions! The very brand new one by Kosky! The other one – new to ROH – you know and love by Loy (not that one, the other one). Scroll down 😉

Tl;dr: this is turning into a really excting period at ROH and not just because of Handel (but especially). I am also expecting Poppea cca Januray 2020, after the first two Monteverdi instalments. Very low on Mozart, though. You know there is more to him than the DaPonte stuff (and Mitridate).

It’s that time of the year people are eager to find out what’s coming up, so here are some updates from the ever reliable source. I put a NEW next to the information that’s transpired since my last post on the subject:

late 2018 – 2019

Katya Kabanova (Janacek)
NEW Fall 2018 | Production: Richard Jones all the Janacek! from Jones!

The Queen of Spades (Tchaikovsky) Co-Production with De Nederlandse Opera | Production: Stefan Herheim
NEW January 2019 | Polina: Anna Goryachova <- will they keep the trouser role scene?

La Forza Del Destino (Verdi) February 2019 | Conductor: Antonio Pappano
NEW:
Production: Christof Loy <- Leo gets a white shirt?
Don Alvaro: Jonas Kaufmann
Leonora: Anna Netrebko
Fra Melitone: Alessandro Corbelli

NEW Das Liebesverbot (Wagner) coproduction with Teatro Real-Madrid
Spring 2019 | Director: Kasper Holten

NEW Billy Budd (Britten)
Conductor: Richard Farnes | Director: David McVicar hm, why not?

NEW Le nozze di Figaro (Mozart)
2019 La Contessa: Julia Kleiter

Faust (Gounod)
NEW March 2019 | Marguérite: Diana Damrau I might go

NEW Otello (Verdi)
Desdemona: Ermonela Jaho

Andrea Chénier (Giordano)
NEW Spring 2019 (pushed back)

2019 – 2020

NEW Jenufa (Janacek)
Director:  Claus Guth
Kostelnicka: Karita Mattila yes to more Mattila and more Janacek. Hope Guth will be on form.

Death in Venice (Britten)
NEW November
Conductor: Mark Elder | Production: David McVicar

Agrippina (Händel)
Production: Barrie Kosky ❤ you know you want to come to London!

[edit: debuting in Munich this Summer with Coote in the title role and Fagioli and Davies as Nerone and Ottone]

NEW REVIVALS

Elektra (Strauss) 2020
Klytemnestra: Karita Mattila I’ll go see her!

Parsifal (Wagner) 2020
Conductor: Semyon Bychkov

Madama Butterfly (Puccini) Summer 2020
Conductor: Antonio Pappano
Goro: Carlo Bosi

NEW 2020 – 2021

Les Contes d’Hoffmann (Offenbach) Fall 2020
Production: Michieletto
Hoffmann: Juan Diego Florez

So they’re chucking out their ancient Hoffmann? Good riddance! I hope Michieletto does something with this sexist story. On the other hand, there’s a lot of Hoffmann in just a few years, chap wrote other fun stuff (like his take of Orphee).

Hänsel und Gretel (Humperdinck)   
Production: Antony McDonald I wonder if it’s replacing the cancelled Konigskinder?

4 new works inspired by Slavoj Zizek’s writings (Saariaho, Turnage, Francesconi, Widmann)  heh, interesting idea
Librettist: Sofi Oksanen

Alcina (Händel) ❤ ❤ ❤
Production: Christof Loy (from Zurich)
Bradamante: Varduhi Abrahamyan ❤

I’m expecting everyone to London for an extended Alcina party!

Věc Makropulos (Janacek) Mattila, right? She sang it at Southbank a couple of years back

From the House of the Dead (ROH, 14 March 2018)

From the House of the Dead at ROH (Photo by Clive Barda)

For me, Janáček is singular among composers in that he had the ability, unlike others who tried way too hard, to write some wickedly thoughful libretti on themes other than the same old operatic fodder – and the music isn’t bad either, especially after you get used to Sprechgesang.

I first came across him via Glyndebourne’s production of Cunning Little Vixen and although I found the singing a bit hard going, I genuinely enjoyed the fable-like libretto (I’m also fond of foxes; London is their playground, pretty much every neighbourhood has a den and they even walk along with you on the pavement in daylight). Then I heard The Makropulos Case, easier music to take (or perhaps I was a bit less green), again with a libretto that discusses a subject I find fascinating (immortality) and another very strong female character.

I’ve been eagerly awaiting this production, based on all this, a curiousity about Warlikowski and my longterm interest in psychology.

Alexandr Gorjancikov: Willard W. White
Aljeja: Pascal Charbonneau
Luka Kuzmič: Štefan Margita
Skuratov: Ladislav Elgr
Šiškov/Priest: Johan Reuter
Prison Governor: Alexander Vassiliev
Big Prisoner/Nikita: Nicky Spence
Small Prisoner/Cook: Grant Doyle
Elderly Prisoner: Graham Clark
Voice: Konu Kim
Drunk Prisoner: Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Šapkin: Peter Hoare
Prisoner/Kedril: John Graham-Hall
Prisoner/Don Juan/Brahmin: Aleš Jenis
Young Prisoner: Florian Hoffmann
Prostitute: Allison Cook
Čerevin: Alexander Kravets
Guard: Andrew O’Connor
Conductor: Mark Wigglesworth | Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House
Director: Krzysztof Warlikowski
Co-production with La Monnaie and Opera de Lyon

Janáček adapted Dostoevsky’s semi-autobiographical novel of life in a 19th century Siberian prison into a series of scenes rather than the kind of linear narrative libretto we know and love. Each of the characters has the centre stage for the purpose of sharing the events that lead to his index offence. The wider point of each story is to illustrate that a grain of humanity exists even within the most despicable characters – or, as the Foucault quote during the overture tells us, what society considers despicable.

(Well, it’s admirable (and desirable) to look at every person beyond their worst actions, but with some people it’s really hard to be optimistic. Still, ever since the performance I’ve been thinking from the point of view that justice is a system organised to apportion blame and dish out what is currently deemed as appropriate punishment; it’s far from perfect and it should continuously be bettered but it’s necessary – and it’s not entirely about making ourselves feel better/superior as it’s implied here; but our sentenced (and unsentenced) offenders do tell us a lot about ourselves as society).

The story begins with the arrival of a new prisoner (Alexandr Gorjancikov), who claims he is there for political reasons, thus setting himself apart from the run of the mill prison population. He functions as the narrator and the opera ends once he is, quite unexpectedly, discharged. (This is similar to what actually happened to Dostoevsky, who spent years on death row after which he was suddenly pardoned.)

Interestingly, although he is the narrator (for the sake of a minimal narrative), his role isn’t bigger than the others’ (we also never hear his backstory), which highlights one of the lines in the libretto – “we are all equal in prison”. He befriends a young prisoner (Aljeja, in for something that sounds like common theft) and tries to help him by defending him from vicious inmates and teaching him how to read and write. The other prisoners go about their usual (rather boring) routines and stand out randomly, for instance when they get into scuffles with each other.

A play is put on for the higher ups (all of which are portrayed as cruel, venal and grandiose and get some right on verbal beating from Kuzmič (aka, eternal rebel Filka Morozov, slyly portrayed by Margita), in which the prisoners perform their (very violent) version of pantomine and opera (a crudely funny take on Mozart’s Don Giovanni, a character which rightly resonates with the inmates; I like how Janáček refrained from pastiche and used only a few short phrases reminding of Mozart). Prisoners’ personal threads are woven into the plot of the play and they are later developed into characters’ testimonies.

As you can imagine, the drama could be rather static. Warlikowski and his team give us a basic set, which looks like a prison gym with plastic chairs to the right and a glass-walled office for the guards to the left of the stage. The office revolves later to accommodate the stage for the play and also for the stories, which are acted out as they are being told. Everyone is always on stage, even when they (apparently) have nothing to contribute to the drama. But that comes in handy when characters are called to sing random lines. Also, their acting out other inmates stories keeps the entire world interconnected. You can imagine the prisoners have heard these stories before and have their own versions of what and how things went down.

This is one of the most (if not the most) Personenregie detailed opera productions I’ve seen so far, to the point where sometimes what was happening on stage made it hard to focus on the music. In a good way, though. I’m normally a fan of very contained dramas and the classic up to 6 characters, but getting a theatre director really enhanced the performance in this case. There were a lot of things going on but it never felt like clutter or unnecessary fussiness. Each character was defined as soon as the curtain went up, by having a personal thread to follow even when “idle”.

As far as performances I can say dramatically the standard was very high. Vocally I was especially impressed by Reuter’s Šiškov, whose story takes up something like 20min of singing in one chunk in act III. This is Sprechgesang, so success comes down to singers’ handling of text. I think the term “gripping” has been overused but that was pretty much how I felt about Reuter’s intervention – clear and solid and emotional (the story moves from cold violence to humbling sentiment and back again, which, according to Mum, is typically Russian). I don’t know this repertoire enough to talk further and, as I was saying ealier, I often felt it difficult to focus on stage action, singing and orchestra at once, but I will tell you there are many unusual objects played aside from usual instruments, my favourite being a real saw and plank of wood. Check out what Tim Ashley has to say, he heard more than I did.

Though quite a bit went over my head I’m really glad I went. Janáček’s voice is unique and interesting and speaks as much to one’s intellect as to their emotions. If you can get to at least like him it’s well worth it. I think I’m starting to feel him a bit of a hero.

Thursday’s Something Else (Janáček)

tseToday I thought I’d go for a bit of Janáček – From the House of the Dead. There’s nothing wrong with it, just not the most exciting writing for the voice. If it were a symphony I’d think “the orchestration is so vivid, it’d make a great opera” 😉 In conclusion, I’d go see it, as it could prove more exciting that way.