While Glyndebourne’s celebrated gardens were as beautiful as ever for their long awaited reopening, the elements were more in tune with the subject matter of Janáček’s Kátya Kabanová than with any thoughts of an idyllic summer afternoon: operagoers were greeted by a lashing gale which echoed Alexander Ostrovsky’s storm over the river Volga. Glyndebourne's windmill was in overdrive; only the thunder was missing.

Kateřina Kněžíková (Kátya)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Many productions of Kátya Kabanová are built around the storm and the mighty river flowing through the village, but these hold little interest for Damiano Michieletto. Rather, his staging is firmly focused on Kátya’s state of mind. Bare white walls shift around the stage to represent the forces that hem her in, opening at times to reveal a chink of light through which she might escape, only to slam shut as the escape route is removed. The “angels flying aloft to heaven”, that Kátya imagines when she is in church, are incarnated in the form of a single, non-speaking winged angel and the feathers that flutter down from his wings. He and eight similarly clothed but wingless dancers are present throughout the production, placing us in a half-world between Kátya’s dreams and the ghastly reality of the Kabanov household in which she is entrapped. Another of Kátya’s thoughts – the stone “which lies so heavy upon my heart” – is also made physical, while bird cages present the combination of entrapment and being exposed for all to see. 

The designs are clever. Carla Teti’s pale blue dress makes Kátya simultaneously pretty and dowdy, while the Kabanicha is dressed severely but with immaculate elegance. Where directors often express the misery of the household by a grey and dingy background, Paolo Fantin goes for brilliant white walls and a brilliant white sofa, the only item of furniture, under the painfully bright glare of Alessandro Carletti’s lighting.

Katarina Dalayman (Kabanicha), Kateřina Kněžíková (Kátya), Nicky Spence (Tichon)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Kateřina Kněžíková gives a masterful performance of the title role. She starts with the advantage of singing in her native tongue – she’s a stalwart of Prague National Theatre – and adds to that a voice that has glitter at the top and sweetness throughout. Her acting is totally believable as she flits around the stage, moods swinging between dreaminess and honest but doomed attempts to come to terms with daily reality. 

While Kněžíková is the undoubted star of the show, the supporting cast has plenty of strength in depth. David Butt Philip (her lover Boris) and Thomas Atkins (his friend Kudrjaš) have generous, appealing tenor voices. Nicky Spence perfectly pitches the paradox of brutality and weakness of her husband Tichon. Aigul Akhmetshina sparkles as the naughty, imprudent Varvara. Katarina Dalayman, previously a fine Wagnerian soprano but now converted to mezzo, is an imperious Kabanicha: if a production of Kátya Kabanová is successful, we all have to hate the Kabanicha by the end, and Dalayman certainly achieved that.

Kateřina Kněžíková (Kátya)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Covid restrictions take their toll. Robin Ticciati and the London Philharmonic play the music briskly and transparently, but the reduced orchestration robs the sound of depth, as does the fact that we don’t get to see the chorus on stage. The lack of physical contact on stage is obvious, most visibly in the scene between Kabanicha and Dikoj, which fails to make the most of the opportunity to contrast the older generation’s stated ideals and their actual behaviour.

By definition, a production which focuses sharply on one aspect of an opera causes the others to become blurred. Michieletto makes the structure of the play extremely transparent – Act 1 sets up the characters, Act 2 portrays how Varvara’s thoughtlessness sets up the tragedy, Act 3 provides the dénouement. Within that structure, he places us clearly inside Kátya’s head; we see her thoughts, fears, dreams and eventual despair in visceral intensity. The rest, most notable Janáček’s searing critique of the prevailing hypocrisy and backwardness of village life, is more muted.

Given how long it is since I’ve been able to review a new, fully staged opera production, I can’t help but mention the occasion. It took no little bravery for Glyndebourne to stage this production at all, and no little skill to handle the logistics and Covid-safety of the operation with the grace and aplomb that they did. The inclement weather did little to dampen the spirits of operagoers starved of the opportunity to hear top class voices and debate an interesting and different staging of a great opera. It’s good to be back.

****1