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Bieito's parched aesthetic strips the emotion from Kátya Kabanová at Brno's Janáček Festival

Von , 10 November 2022

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.

Kátya Kabanová
© Zdeněk Sokol

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. 

Alžběta Poláčková (Kátya)
© Zdeněk Sokol

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. 

Despite the sterile context in which they have to work, the performances were strong. Soprano Alžběta Poláčková gave her all in the title role offering rich, gleaming tone which she controlled admirably, including some stunning pianissimi. That her portrayal did not offer the ultimate catharsis seemed more related to the dictates of the concept rather than her innate gifts as a singing actress. Danish tenor Magnus Vigilius is blessed with the physique du rôle and a well-projected, light Helden tone that only got away from him at one climatic phrase. Jaroslav Březina’s many years on the stage paid off in his ability to suggest Tichon’s frustration, as well as his lack of emotional maturity to do much about it. 

Eva Urbanová (Kabanicha) and Jaroslav Březina (Tichon)
© Zdeněk Sokol

The secondary couple, Kátya’s foster sister Varvara and her lover, Váňa Kudrjáš, were well-sung by Alena Kropáčková and Martin Šrejma. Once again though, there was little to suggest three-dimensionality, especially in the case of Varvara. In many productions, she is a foil to the fretting Kátya, a free spirit who escapes her small town life by running off to Moscow with her boyfriend. Here, her carefree nature was only crudely hinted at when she lifted the front of her skirt to give Kudrjáš a peek at what was underneath.

Urbanová commanded the stage, and even after a 30 year career singing roles like Turandot, Salome and Tosca, can still deliver enough steely tone to convince in a role like this one. She did her best given the circumstances, but once again, wasn’t offered much scope within the confines of a staging so drained of emotion.

Jaroslav Kyzlink conducted the Orchestra and Chorus of the Prague National Theatre, drawing out all the intensity of the score’s big moments, while letting more lyrical passages like the heart-wrenching violin solos shine through. It’s a cliché to say that to experience the true emotional core of Janáček’s operas, one must pay attention to the sounds emanating from the pit. Thankfully, in the case of this Bieito staging those sounds offered at least some compensation for the lack of intensity elsewhere. 

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“soprano Alžběta Poláčková gave her all in the title role”
Rezensierte Veranstaltung: Janáček Theatre (Janáčkovo divadlo), Brno, am 9 November 2022
Janáček, Kátja Kabanová
Jaroslav Kyzlink, Dirigent
Calixto Bieito, Regisseur
Aída Leonor Guardia, Bühnenbild
Eva Butzkies, Kostüme
Michael Bauer, Licht
Prague National Theatre Orchestra
Prague National Theatre Chorus
Beno Blachut Jr, Dramaturgie
Alžběta Poláčková, Kátja
Magnus Vigilius, Boris
Eva Urbanová, Kabanicha
Jaroslav Březina, Tichon
Jiří Sulženko, Dikoj
Martin Šrejma, Kudrjaš
Alena Kropáčková, Varvara
Jiří Hájek, Kuligin
Jana Horáková Levicová, Fekluša
Kateřina Jalovcová, Glaša
Jan Bubák, Chorleitung
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