Religious moralism, wicked stepmothers, alcoholism and suicide. These are hardly the cheeriest of subjects, but in Leoš Janáček’s Káťa Kabanová, they combined for a uniquely powerful story. Along with some truly incredible singing, the new Oslo production of Janáček’s bottomless tragedy made for an emotionally devastating piece of music drama.

The title character of Káťa Kabanová is a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage and by the strict morality that permeates the society in which she lives. Her mother-in-law, Kabanicha, is obsessed with the well-being of her son Tichon, Káťa’s husband, so much that she actively resents Káťa and tries to have her son to herself. When Káťa falls in love and sleeps with with the son of a local merchant, Boris, she is eventually so overcome by her own sense of morality and fear of the other villagers’ reaction, that she decides to drown herself in the river.

Director Willy Decker’s production first premiered in Hamburg in 2002, and this is only the second time the opera has been performed at all in Oslo. Decker sets the story in an indeterminate not-too-distant past, a claustrophobic world of black woollens and pinstripes. Wolfgang Gussmann’s stark, largely monochromatic sets and costumes mirror the oppression felt by the characters; a single, grey wooden room, sparsely, if at all furnished, sometimes opening to reveal the sky beyond, always out of reach.

The theme of flight and escape is vital both to the opera itself and is made even more explicit in Decker’s production. Káťa is obsessed with birds, spending much of the opera trying to hang up a picture of a bird in flight, a symbol of the freedom she longs for, but can never have. Every time the set opens up, birds can be seen in the background, yet they are always too far away, and disappear from view every time Kabanicha approaches.

Kari Postma completely inhabited her role as Káťa, delivering an utterly harrowing role portrayal, sinking ever deeper into despair. Even from her first appearance, suicide and death seemed inevitable. She managed to convey both the almost girlish side to Káťa’s character as well as the disgraced tragedienne seeing no other option than ending her life. Her voice was quite steely, cutting through the large orchestra for the many recitative-like lines, but opening up beautifully for the more lyrical sections.

Even though she did not spend nearly as much time on stage, Hege Høisæter’s menacing Kabanicha proved Postma’s equal. She once again showed herself as a magnificently compelling vocal actress and, standing almost a head taller than Postma, she towered over the other characters, sending deadly looks in every direction. Kabanicha is easily played as a completely evil character, and although Decker did not really give her any redeeming qualities, he did attempt to flesh out the character, showing her hypocrisy and near-Oedipedal obsession with her son.

As Boris, Alexey Kosarev proved a solid singer, but his character was somewhat lifeless and overshadowed by the women. Nils Harald Sødal didn't give the greatest vocal performance as Tichon, yet his portrayal of an unhappy man trapped between a wicked mother and alcohol was fascinating to watch. Tone Kummervold’s girlish Varvara was a ray of light in a sea of darkness, providing the joy and optimism no other characters could muster. The role was also very well suited to her luxuriantly plummy lower and middle registers.

Conductor Tomáš Hanus emphasised the lyricism of the score, letting the music unfurl in all its violent beauty, but never without losing the lyrical nerve. While the whole orchestra sounded beautiful, from the big, all-out climaxes, to the smaller, softer, more intimate moments, the standout was the horns, playing with a secure, golden tone throughout. The synchronisation between the staging and the pit was also admirable, the staging responding to musical gestures from the orchestra and vice versa.

Early in the first act, Káťa asks “Why can’t humans fly?” Trapped in her loveless marriage, trapped by religious moralism, she has no way of flying away herself. When she for once tries to follow her heart’s desires she is severely punished, most importantly by herself. Willy Decker’s production of Káťa Kabanová is decidedly not cheery viewing, but it is still one of the most powerful evenings I have spent in an opera house.