Leoš Janáček's Katya Kabanova doesn't feature on any list of top operas that I've ever seen. It's not performed all that often, and it's not recorded all that often either. On the evidence of last night's performance by English Touring Opera, I absolutely fail to understand why. Katya Kabanova is exactly what “music drama” should be about – a simple, bleak, tragic story powerfully told, with music perfectly matched to the characters and the action and containing many passages of sublime beauty.

Even as a committed lover of opera, I can see that there are many things which deter newcomers to the genre. If you're expecting drama, baroque opera and bel canto suffer from endless repetitions of the same words which can spoil any dramatic effect. If you expect beautiful music, much modern opera is atonal, discordant and difficult to listen to. Wagner suffers from neither of these, but requires serious staying power, and most of his plots are based on ancient myth.

Katya Kabanova suffers from none of these failings. In a genre where most plots are melodrama rather than drama, it deals with the simplest and most human of tragedies: a woman trapped in a loveless marriage who falls head over heels in love with another man and is unable to cope with the consequences. The characters are simply but finely drawn: the harridan mother-in-law who rules the family with a rod of iron, the boorish uncle with his hands on the purse-strings, the well-intentioned but feckless and occasionally drunk and violent husband, the happy, devil-may-care sister-in-law who unwittingly leads Katya into disaster.

From the beginning of the prelude, much of the music moved me and made me catch my breath. When it didn't, it was when the music mimicked the nature of the uglier characters: rapid fire, staccato for the matriarch Kabanija, grunting and ponderous for the elderly Dikoj. Janáček borrows cheerfully from folk themes (or invents his own), and when he decides to portray romance, as in the duet between Varvara and Kudryash, the effect is quite magical.

English Touring Opera play in smaller venues around the country: this London performance was in the Victorian splendour of the Hackney empire. It seems to me that the opera is well suited to the smaller venue and orchestra, together with the fairly basic sets and costumes: it may be a more difficult act to pull off in a more massive venue. And ETO sing the opera in English but provide surtitles, so unlike many English performances (see my blog on the subject), you can actually tell what the characters are singing.

None of the music is particularly virtuosic, so if you go to the opera to be wowed by trills, high Cs and vocal pyrotechnics, this isn't the one for you. But in every other way, Katya Kabanova is a deeply moving experience and a must-see.


Click on this link to find performances of Katya Kabanova.

Or read director James Conway's notes on the opera.

Photos of as Jane Harrington as Varvara, Mike Bracegirdle as Kudryash and Sion Goronwy as Dikoj courtesy of English Touring Opera.