Prima la musica, or prima le parole? In an era when Richard Strauss and others were still pursuing the opera world’s obsessive debate over whether words or music should have primacy, Leoš Janáček was reducing the question to irrelevance in Katya Kabanova by binding the natural rhythms of spoken text so tightly to music that they become an indivisible whole in service of the drama. Prima la dramma would put it more aptly – and last night at Leeds Grand Theatre, Opera North did Janáček’s drama proud.

Katie Bray (Varvara), Stephanie Corley (Katya)
© Jane Hobson

The comedian Les Dawson made the “Mother in law from hell” into a classic comic stereotype. Janáček wouldn’t have seen the funny side: In Katya Kabanova, Kabanicha is a hypocritical, self-centred harridan with no redeeming features. Heather Shipp was totally convincing in her interpretation: she made every member of the audience mentally shake their fists in fury at the inhumanity of the woman. As the rich and elderly Dikoy, Stephen Richardson’s abusive bluster was as potent as Shipp’s machine-gun rattle of demands, Richardson's voice with a powerful swoop that reminded me of John Tomlinson. Perhaps the creepiest scene of the whole opera is when Dikoy – a character as bad as Kabanicha, but casually evil rather than calculatedly so – is masochistically begging her for a bit of abuse.

The casualty of all this, of course, is Katya herself. Stephanie Corley gave us a deep understanding of a woman who is ardent, loving, simplistic and not really in control of anything, including herself. At each stage, Corley made us feel that Katya’s actions were inevitable: giving in to her irresistible passion for Boris, her unnecessary public confession of adultery (guaranteed to lead to disaster) and her eventual suicide. I can cavil at Corley’s timbre or at some of the high notes, but I can’t fault her dramatic portrayal.

Katie Bray (Varvara), Alexander Sprague (Kudryash)
© Jane Hobson

Katya’s sister-in-law Varvara is equally sympathetic, but the polar opposite in worldly wisdom: she has all the street smartness and ability to get what she wants out of life that Katya lacks. Katie Bray played her quite superbly: chirpy, naughty, delightful – and then, at the end, near-hysterically as she realises the consequences of what she has done in playing go-between to Katya’s affair. At the end of Act 2, Varvara and her lover, the teacher Kudryash, get the one simple strophic melody of the opera: Bray and Alexander Sprague sang it beautifully, more credible young lovers than I’ve seen in many a year on an opera stage. Sprague was a strong Kudryash – he’s the only character who comes out of the opera with any real credit – making himself into a narrator figure, the central point around which the drama revolves. Katya’s tragedy is that both her husband Tichon and lover Boris are feeble nonentities. Singing a nonentity is a thankless task, which Andrew Kennedy and Harold Meers accomplished as well as one could hope for.

Sian Edwards led the Opera North Orchestra in a compelling account of the beauty and intensity that the composer injected into ever phrase. The orchestral timbre took some time to blend – the sense of energy and shape was there from the very first bars, but instruments were sounding as individual items rather than a smooth whole – but the sound soon settled down into a solid base with which to grip us. But as the orchestral sound swelled, problems of balance arrived: with the exception of Richardson’s powerful bass, it felt like all of our soloists had voices a size too small for what was being asked of them.

Stephen Richardson, Andrew Kennedy, Stephanie Corley, Heather Shipp
© Jane Hobson

Tim Albery’s staging is straightforward, sparse and generally darkly lit. It's somewhat drab and doesn’t add much to the events on-stage, but apart from some overly long pauses for changing of scenery, it doesn’t detract from them. With ensemble acting of such quality, it’s hard to complain. Plaudits, by the way, to the translator Norman Tucker, who made this into a strong advertisement for singing opera in English.

I find it hard to understand why Katya Kabanova is performed as seldom as it is (having said which, this is the first of three productions in the UK this year). Perhaps the biggest factor is that it’s fundamentally based on prose where most opera is based on poetry, perhaps it’s because the ending is so unbearably bleak (even the gut-wrenching Jenůfa ends with a reasonable level of redemption). But a performance like this, in which beauty of music is matched to a first class theatrical experience, will surely make converts.

You can read our joint interview with Stephanie Corley and this year's other two Katyas here.