Review: Katya Kabanova Opera North at Leeds Grand Theatre, Wednesday, February 27, 2019

THE fictional town of Kalinov on the shores of Russia’s mighty Volga River is the locale for a work widely regarded as Leos Janacek’s first “mature” opera. Janacek’s inspiration was his own (unrequited) love for a married woman Kamila Stosslova. She was the dedicatee for the opera’s premiere at Brno’s National Theatre, on November 23rd 1921.

Katya Kabanova is married to Tichon who is totally dominated by his mother Kabanicha, a wealthy widow who still wields considerable clout in the town. Katya longs for her former carefree life and soon succumbs to the temptations of one Boris Grigoryevich. She then finds herself unable to live with the dire social consequences of this “sin”. The storm tossed waters of the Volga tragically claim their victim.

Tim Albery’s dimly lit production stokes up the claustrophobic, loveless atmosphere of small town respectability. Heather Shipp’s compelling assumption of the demanding, church-going Kabanicha casts a long shadow over the lives of those around her. The tense scene in which she humiliates Katya by urging Tichon to instruct his wife “not to look at other men when he is away on business”, is a case in point. Stefanie Corley’s dramatic portrayal of the disintegrating Katya is ultimately heart breaking, as indeed it must be. Andrew Kennedy as Tichon and Harold Meers as Boris both deliver strong characterisations as the (wholly inadequate) men in Katya’s life.

Dispensing with an interval and concentrating the three acts into a cohesive whole shows sound artistic judgement. Janaceck’s genius is to bind the sung text so tightly to the flow of the music that even the brief pauses during scene changes can seem to leave you on a cliff edge. He doesn’t waste a single note. Conductor Sian Edwards, in her belated Opera North debut, releases the lyrical beauty and the dramatic intensity from the pages of this richly orchestrated score.

Geoffrey Mogridge