Composer : Leoš Janáček after Ostrovsky’s The Storm
Director: Tim Albery
Conductor : Sian Edwards
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
At 105 minutes Katya Kabanova is an awkward length for an opera: too short to require an interval but too long to be part of a double bill. However, absorbing the opera in a single sitting exposes the audience to the full raw emotion of the title character’s descent into desperation and madness.
In a puritan village, Katya Kabanova (Stephanie Corley) has a loveless marriage with Tichon (Andrew Kennedy) who, dominated by his terrifying mother, Kabanicha (Heather Shipp) treats his wife with disdain although the mental distress of so doing drives him to drink. Close to metal collapse, Katya begs her husband not to leave her alone fearing she might fulfil Kabanicha’s hateful suspicions and give in to temptation. When Tichon leaves on a business trip Katya starts an affair with Boris (Harold Meers) and so moves towards a tragic fate.
Director Tim Albery takes a caustic approach to sexual hypocrisy. Katya’s family and neighbours repress their emotions and flaunt their puritanism. Designer Hildegard Bechtler dresses the cast in plain sombre clothes and even the wallpaper in Katya’s house is a deep green shade. There are no bright or cheerful colours here. Yet the villagers take a prurient, voyeuristic attitude to each other with the chorus of Opera North eavesdropping on conversations between Katya and her family.
There is a heavy sexual undertone despite the pretentions of the villagers. Kabanova’s foster-child Varvara (Katie Bray – excelling as one of the few characters in the opera with a sense of humanity) innocently indulges in sexual role-play with her lover. However, Stephanie Corley portrays Kabanova as a full-on sexual dominatrix. A scene written as a confessional slides into depravity as the aloof and chilly Kabanova slaps her suitor’s face, pulls his hair and pushes his head into her lap.
In some ways, Katya Kabanovais a study of mental illness. Tichon is a self-hating drunk. Boris’s uncle Dikoy (Stephen Richardson) is a bully who enjoys being sexually humiliated. Heather Shipp plays Kabanicha as a terrifying character, determined to twist other people to her way of thinking. Although Shipp never misses a note her vocal performance is hard to endure with a hectoring quality reflecting Margaret Thatcher at her most strident.
Stephanie Corley’s Katya is an open wound. Even in the early scenes, Katya seems pushed to the point of being delusional with only her memories of the past to offset her unbearable present. By the concluding scenes, Katya’s suffering is so great that her lover Boris seems almost embarrassed by her need and eager to escape. It is a stunning performance perfectly reflecting the passion of Leoš Janáček’s tempestuous score.
Opera is an art form that needs grand passion to be at its best and emotion does not come rawer than in Opera North’s version of Katya Kabanov.
Reviewed on 7 March 2019| Image: Jane Hobson