Fifteen years separate Janáček’s two bleakest operas. They are practically a pair, as each one details the tragedy of a young woman whose destiny is corrupted by the twisted morality of an older one. However, while Jenůfa is a harrowing piece that hints at all-round redemption, what makes Kátya Kabanová almost unbearable is its forensic, unsparing focus on the anguish of its heroine. With Sir Simon Rattle and an inspired London Symphony Orchestra at one with the score, this first of two concert performances should have been a dark night of the soul.

Amanda Majeski and Sir Simon Rattle
© LSO | Mark Allan

It nearly succeeded, and no one is to blame for the one small flaw that held emotions in check. Janáček, supreme operatic dramatist that he was, composed a score that cries out to be inhabited and vital, so loaded is it with psychological contrasts. A concert, however magnificent, cannot replicate the need for a theatrical context, and on the Barbican Hall platform there were moments when passions felt synthesised. Kátya’s uninhibited encounter with Boris in Act 2 was one such, with even the splendid Amanda Majeski unable to muster the spontaneous agitations of a woman torn asunder by forbidden love. When she sang the title role for the Royal Opera back in 2019, Richard Jones’ direction ripped that moment from her very guts.

The counterweight here was Rattle, as so often a dramatist in sound. He led the listener to the Volga River as the poetic Kudrjas gazed into it; he poured ice into the heart of Kabanicha, Kátya’s over-protective mother-in-law and broke the flabby resolve of her weak-willed son, Tichon; he conjured the storm that beckoned the latter’s tortured wife to seek oblivion. Tension brimmed in the brief orchestral episodes, with every phrase adding to the unravelling story. From the haunting four-note motif – identical to the cry of “Silly fellow” in Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb – that recurs at moments of pain, to the short cadences of irresistible romance, immense yet unresolved, that depict Kátya’s pangs of guilt, it was a magnificent account.

Simon O'Neill and Amanda Majeski
© LSO | Mark Allan

While Majeski’s plaintive vocal beauty was exquisitely agonised, she was matched for charisma by a flawless supporting cast. The opera’s trio of tenors, all appropriately varied, delivered credible characters: the shoulder-drooped Tichon of Andrew Staples was remarkable, as was Ladislav Elgr as Kudrjaš, the opera’s high-octane shot of optimism. As Boris, Simon O’Neill had less rich raw material to play with but he sang with style, if not with abandon.

Katarina Dalayman and Sir Simon Rattle
© LSO | Mark Allan

Magdalena Kožená sang most eloquently in her native tongue as Tichon’s foster-sister, Varvara, while the Anglo-Ukrainian Pavlo Hunka, a late jump-in as Dikoj, deployed a range of baleful bass-baritone colours with finely-judged belligerence. However, it was Katarina Dalayman whose flint-like characterisation struck the most sparks. The former soprano has transformed herself nowadays into a dramatic mezzo-soprano of formidable intelligence and power, and woe betide anyone who got caught in the headlights of this harridan of a Kabanicha. Kátya never stood a chance.