When Janáček decided to use Alexander Ostrovsky’s 1859 play, The Storm, as the subject for his 1923 opera Kátya Kabanová, he drastically reduced the number of characters and left out the majority of the text in his own Czech translation. The result is one of the most succinct, psychologically-penetrating portrayals of the harmful effects of abusive relationships and small-town mentality that we have in the operatic repertoire. Calixto Bieito’s production of Kátya premiered at Prague's National Theatre in January 2022 and now appears at Brno’s Janáček Festival. The Spanish director takes what is already a highly-concentrated music drama and strips it down even further, resulting in a “bare bones” aesthetic and dramaturgy that fail to deliver the opera's intrinsic emotional potential.
Even before a note is played, with house lights still up, the audience is confronted by a concrete box lit with blindingly bright, cold white light. Kátya is already on stage and as the orchestra begins its first aching phrases, she races to and fro, climbing the walls like a rat caught in a trap. It is a chilling, if obvious, metaphor for her lot in life, married to the alcoholic abuser Tichon, both of them living under the judgmental eye of his mother, Kabanicha. Faced with such an appalling situation, it’s no wonder Kátya escapes into a dream world, affixing her coat to the wall in the shape of a bird, asking “Why can’t people fly?”
This simple, but powerful image, however, was one of the few times Bieito manages to marry his aesthetic with the characters’ inner lives in any meaningful way. For the most part, their torments and twisted actions are given little motivation. A prime example occurs at the end of Act 1 after the Kabanicha embarrasses her son into lecturing Kátya on how to behave in his absence. Legendary Czech soprano Eva Urbanová chewed the scenery here, cackling, then sobbing and finally smugly turning upstage, but her mini tour de force of facial acting felt tacked on rather than motivated by any meaningful character development up to that point.
Kátya mistakenly believes she can escape by having an affair with the handsome Boris, himself tied down to an odious relative, his uncle Dikój, who controls his inheritance. In Act 2, they consummate their forbidden passion in full view, up against the back wall of the unit set. This rather blatant display feels unnecessary. Kátya's mental state is so fragile, even just the thought of having an affair should be enough to trigger the guilt that ultimately drives her to suicide. For all their heated physical passion, Bieito actually offers his singing actors little to no chance of meaningful emotional interaction, making it difficult for the audience to sympathise with their plight.