Russia’s mighty national river, the Volga is a major character in Janáček’s dramatic cruelly tragic Katya Kabanova, central to the action and always a flowing presence in the sweeping music. Leslie Travers’ wonderfully evocative set, with its two moving metal gangways over the river bed, takes us to the small-town rust-bucket Russia of industrial abandonment, reminding me of the wastelands in Andrey Zvyaginstev’s film Leviathan. In Stephen Lawless’ production for Scottish Opera, we know exactly where the story ends when the curtain rises, as the grim result of a search by locals using torches with icy white beams is a drowned woman, hauled out of the current onto the uneven flat river rock which forms the foundation for the drama.

Laura Wilde (Katya) and Ric Furman (Boris) © James Glossop
Laura Wilde (Katya) and Ric Furman (Boris)
© James Glossop

Lawless creates a stifling atmosphere of claustrophobia amongst the tangled steel and riverbed reeds, essential to this opera where the churchgoing community keeps up appearances against an undercurrent of suspicion and meanness. Getting any privacy was difficult as there was almost always someone going to work, or just watching the river. It was all stunningly lit by Christopher Akerlind in steely whites, becoming briefly edged with gold during Kátya and Boris’ offstage assignation, and all blues and green during the storm as real rain pelted down into the river reeds. The dynamic combination of moving set and changing lighting was fascinating, almost a character pulling us right into the story.

Janáček was infatuated with Kamilla Stösslová, a married woman 40 years his junior, who inspired the composer’s outpourings of creativity in his later years, especially Katya, portrayed as a woman with a happy God-fearing childhood who married the wrong man. Many long to take the road out, but Katya is wedded to the community in a loveless marriage to Tikhon, living in a household ruled by her mother-in-law, the bitter and jealous Kabanicha. When Tikhon goes away on business, Katya battles with her fragile conscience as she meets her lover Boris for secret evening river trysts, but pressures from all sides mount, driving her to confess all to her family with terrible results.

Laura Wilde (Katya) © James Glossop
Laura Wilde (Katya)
© James Glossop

At the heart of this production, strongly sung in original the Czech, Laura Wilde’s Katya gave a sympathetic portrait of a woman disintegrating from her nature-loving carefree early days to a domestic regime bullied by Kabanicha and let down by her men. In a punishing role, Wilde’s bright attractive soprano convincingly conveyed innocence, unhappiness, joy, desperation and deep anguish. Patricia Bardon sang a jealous and vindictive Kabanicha with bitter spirit, genuinely terrifying Katya and intimidating Samuel Sakker’s weak-willed Tikhon. Ric Furman was a rather lightly sung Boris and Paul Whelan a splendidly gruff bad-tempered Dikoy.

Patricia Bardon (Kabanicha) © James Glossop
Patricia Bardon (Kabanicha)
© James Glossop

The pair of young lovers almost stole the show with their strongly sung performances, Trystan Llŷr Griffiths’ Vanya fully relishing the challenges of the Czech words and Hanna Hipp’s courageous Varvara, her onstage change from dowdy peasant to racy ‘girl on a night out’, a welcome light relief.

It takes more than singing skills to do justice to Janáček’s opera, relying as it does on psychological drama, and the ensemble gave particularly strong stage performances. Janáček believed in the hand of fate, and Lawless brought out the turning points brilliantly: the scene where Kabanicha instructs Tikhon to tell his wife how to behave while he was away was brilliantly done, the older lady becoming ever more gleeful realising she was getting away with ridiculous demands. When Katya weighs up whether to make use of the key to the garden or throw it away, it glints temptingly in her hand, and the storm scene where she emerges soaking and muddy from the reeds felt very real as she grappled with her conscience.

Laura Wilde (Katya) and ensemble © James Glossop
Laura Wilde (Katya) and ensemble
© James Glossop

In the pit, Stuart Stratford brought out the wonderfully vivid colours of the score developing its musical ideas and leitmotifs, the evocative woodwind and horn playing a particular delight. The large forces occasionally overwhelmed the singers at the start, but balance mostly settled down. Never less than exciting, the sweeping strings were all glowing one moment then ratcheting up the emotional tension, thrilling like a Hitchcock score.

The mostly offstage chorus was full of menace, successfully unnerving Katya, edging her towards her fate, which brought audible gasps round the audience, and the scene back to the beginning. With the young lovers off to Moscow and Boris away to a job in Siberia, we catch another couple making eyes at each other, just one of the many vignettes that mark this out as an engagingly strong production from Scottish Opera and Theater Magdeburg.

****1