The nearest thing we have to the Volga river in Andrea Breth’s Káťa Kabanová is a goldfish in a bag, brought in by Kudrjaš at the start. Or maybe it's the bathtub, plonked on the left, from which Káťa sings of her dreams and into which she and those dreams retreat again at the close. This was the first revival of a staging unveiled at the Schillertheater in 2013 (having originated in Brussels), and it's a stern, serious show. Annette Murschetz’s set features two walls loosely confining a sort of wasteland of domestic life, a field of broken dreams. There’s a fridge, into which Káťa is squeezed at the start and retreats after her tryst with Boris. Two faded portraits of relatives peer down from on high, doubly distant. 

Eva-Maria Westbroek (Kát'a Kabanová) © Bernd Uhlig (2014)
Eva-Maria Westbroek (Kát'a Kabanová)
© Bernd Uhlig (2014)

Breth places an emphasis on servants, clad in austere black, fussing around the place as both symbols and enforcers of female repression. Other characters are dressed in standard mid-century east-European drab (costumes by Silke Willret and Marc Weeger). They are directed, it seems, to convey a prevailing sense of numbness, occasionally freezing into stillness. Alexander Koppelmann lights it all with unconsoling coolness.

It’s a cold vision of the piece, then, and one that offers little glimpse of the beauty that Káťa longs to find in life: her essential innocence and hope seem to have been bleached out, while her assertiveness with Boris presents a very different idea of the character. But Eva-Maria Westbroek embraces this version of her fully in a powerfully committed and compelling central performance. She matched vocal intensity with delicacy, conveying a moving honesty and nobility that gave the tragedy a real depth.

Emma Sarkisyan (Glascha) and Eva-Maria Westbroek (Kát'a) © Bernd Uhlig (2014)
Emma Sarkisyan (Glascha) and Eva-Maria Westbroek (Kát'a)
© Bernd Uhlig (2014)

Another result of the production seemed to be that it detracted slightly from the role of Kabanicha, whose responsibility for Káťa’s downfall feels almost incidental in surroundings already so oppressive and bereft of hope. This was possibly compounded by the fact that Rosalind Plowright’s performance was less large-scale than some. Nevertheless, the wiry intensity of her characterisation was highly effective, and she was brilliantly po-faced in the production’s only moment of comedy, rifling dutifully around in the trousers of Pavlo Hunka’s drunken Dikoj.

Simon O'Neill was a terrific Boris, confidently sung and acted with just the right sense of vague, fragile confidence. Anna Lapkovskaja stood out too as a bright and confidently sung Varvara, and there were further excellent ensemble performances from Stephan Rügamer (Tichon) and Florian Hoffmann (Kudrjaš).

Breth’s vision was complemented well by Simon Rattle’s outstanding conducting, which captured unerringly the essence of a score in which moving, deeply human tenderness is never quite allowed to blossom into a warm embrace. Rattle clearly loves the score, but knows, too, to maintain a certain distance.

Anna Lapkovskaja (Varvara) and Stephan Rügamer (Tichon) © Bernd Uhlig (2014)
Anna Lapkovskaja (Varvara) and Stephan Rügamer (Tichon)
© Bernd Uhlig (2014)

It’s astonishing to think that Káťa’s first Staatsoper performance was only 12 years ago (the previous production was by Michael Thalheimer) and it was clear early in this performance that it’s not a score that the Staatskapelle has instinctively under their fingers. There was a certain amount of scrappiness at first, in the higher-lying string writing in particular, but it didn’t take long for the playing to settle down, with the orchestra’s cultivated, transparent sound, as managed by Rattle, shining a special light on the work’s many moments of almost unbearable beauty.

The orchestral performance will no doubt bed in further as the run progresses. Breth’s uncompromising vision will also gain yet further focus, I suspect. The ride isn’t going to get easier for audiences, though: with no interval, this is an intense, powerful 100 minutes of uncompromising music drama.