“Winds, carry my grief to him!” There’s a moment in Act 3 of Katya Kabanova in which our eponymous heroine, desperate to see her lover Boris, summons up her last vestiges of mental strength, accompanied by the lushest, most tender of brass and string underpinnings. That moment summed up what was best about last night at Covent Garden: outstanding house debuts from soprano Amanda Majeski and conductor Edward Gardner.

Amanda Majeski (Katya) © ROH | Clive Barda
Amanda Majeski (Katya)
© ROH | Clive Barda

For Majeski, it was not only her house debut but also her first ever Janáček opera, and she threw everything into it. There’s plenty of basic beauty of voice and security of pitch – both essential for a composer who writes lovely long-breathed melodies in a structure far from conventional strophic verse – but what made this performance exceptional was the quality of the vocal acting. Close your eyes and you could hear Majeski putting across the full gamut of shifting emotions, and since Katya is a highly unstable character, there are a lot of shifts to negotiate.

It feels extraordinary that it’s taken The Royal Opera so long to get Gardner into their pit, and the results were exceptional. Janáček provides every section of the orchestra with an endless stream of opportunities to create beautiful timbre, and last night, these opportunities were taken with relish: you could only swoon with the deliciousness of the orchestral sound, while admiring the impeccably judged sense of pace and line.

Pavel Černoch (Boris) and Amanda Majeski (Katya) © ROH | Clive Barda
Pavel Černoch (Boris) and Amanda Majeski (Katya)
© ROH | Clive Barda

But two fabulous debuts from the leading lady and the orchestra are not enough to make a great Katya Kabanova, and sadly, Richard Jones’ staging fell far short of being able to make this opera into the dramatic experience that it should be: woefully short of ideas, and shorter still of good ideas. Katya Kabanova needs several things: it needs the sense of claustrophobia that fetters and eventually breaks Katya, it needs the sense of the river running through its characters’ lives, it needs the great storm in Act 3 to be meaningful, whether you think (like Dikoy) that it’s about God’s punishment, (like Kudryash) that it’s “just electricity”, or that it’s a metaphor for Katya’s mental devastation. The claustrophobia is tricky to bring off on a huge stage like Covent Garden’s: Jones only made things worse by continually choosing large open spaces on stage. Having three young lads simulate fly-fishing into the orchestra pit and crudely stuff their oversize catch into Katya’s face simply didn’t give the sense of the river. The staging of the storm was limp, the strobe lighting that had been the subject of such dire warnings doing little to engender any sense of atmosphere. The device of having lots of people running aimlessly around the stage in circles seemed bizarre and pointless – apart from anything else, the evil mother-in-law Kabanicha is the last character in the world who one would expect to run around like a headless chicken.

Andrew Tortise (Kudryash) and Emily Edmonds (Varvara) © ROH | Clive Barda
Andrew Tortise (Kudryash) and Emily Edmonds (Varvara)
© ROH | Clive Barda

Jones was frequently cavalier with details of the text. The church in Act 3 can be turned into many things, but if you make it a steel bus shelter, the dialogue about lightning conductors between Kudryash and Dikoy becomes ridiculous. When Katya returns from her tryst, having Kabanicha spot her through twitching net curtains gets a cheap laugh, but is utterly against the text, which makes clear that Varvara is cute enough to have arranged things so that there’s no way this will happen (in any case, it’s supposed to be a back gate, not the front of the house).

Hampered by this unsympathetic direction, the rest of the cast struggled to lift performances above the ordinary. Pavel Černoch, also making his house debut, was a vocally adept Boris who played the tortured egoist well but created little visible chemistry in his exchanges with Majeski. Susan Bickley was a rather hapless Kabanicha, too easily outwitted by Varvara, too housewifely and insufficiently lady-of-the-manor to make one believe in her menace. In the one potential moment of relief, the duet between Varvara and Andrew Tortise's Kudryash in which lovers' sighs in the night air might banish our cares, if only for a while, the magic didn't ignite.

Susan Bickley (Kabanicha), Amanda Majeski (Katya) and Andrew Staples (Tichon) © ROH | Clive Barda
Susan Bickley (Kabanicha), Amanda Majeski (Katya) and Andrew Staples (Tichon)
© ROH | Clive Barda

Katya Kabanova is one of my very favourite operas, and I’ve been hoping for some while that it will find its place in the roster of pieces that are staged regularly in London. Disappointingly, this production isn’t going to be the one that makes that happen. But I'll be looking forward to future Gardner and Majeski performances.


***11