Pillars of the community can be terrifying people, especially when all that hard work supporting the community has sucked out all sense of human compassion: only the form of decency remains. In Janáček’s gut-wrenching tragedy Kát’a Kabanová, it is not Kát’a herself who is the main protagonist: it is the chilling figure of her mother-in-law Kabanicha, portrayed with glacial severity by Anne Mason, who provides the driving force that will eventually cause her daughter-in-law’s suicide. Julia Sporsén’s Kát’a is emotionally pliable but, like a sheet of metal, bending too often causes fatigue and fracture.

Nicky Spence, Anne Mason, Clare Presland, Julia Sporsén, Laura Woods © Robert Workman
Nicky Spence, Anne Mason, Clare Presland, Julia Sporsén, Laura Woods
© Robert Workman

Olivia Fuchs’s 2009 production, revived for the first time at Opera Holland Park last night, is straightforward, to the point and intelligent in its use of the space. Blue floor covering, a strategically placed clump of reeds and long boardwalks spanning the wide, shallow stage give a surprisingly strong sense of events happening on the banks of the Volga. A few simple items of symbolism add psychological colour, such as the simple circular cage which represents Kát’a’s isolation. Yannis Thavoris’s designs for the costumes of the chorus lend a splash of colour to proceedings, but their Edwardian formality and the chorus’ stylised movement bring out the rigidity in the society they depict.

Peter Hoare (Boris), Julia Sporsén (Kát'a) © Robert Workman
Peter Hoare (Boris), Julia Sporsén (Kát'a)
© Robert Workman
Kát’a is modelled on the real-life figure of Kamila Stösslová, the married woman with whom Janáček was besotted – or, at least, on Janáček’s probably deluded imagination of what the real Kamila was like. Reading Anna Picard’s description of their relationship in the programme notes, one can’t help being struck by its general weirdness and the questionable nature of Janáček’s unambiguous message in the opera that love and true feelings should take absolute primacy over any adherence to societal norms. However, the opera puts that message across with great power, and while the acting in this production isn’t perfect  – there are plenty of moments where some gesture or movement doesn’t quite ring true – the quality of character portrayal is more than good enough to draw us into the action and take Janáček’s side. Nicky Spence is particularly strong as Kát’a’s ineffectual and bibulous husband; Peter Hoare is highly credible as her somewhat immature lover Boris, as well as taking the vocal honours for the evening. Good support is provided by Clare Presland as the reckless Varvara and Paul Curievici as her lover Kudrjaš, both of whom desert Kát’a unceremoniously as soon as the going gets tough. When, at the end, Anne Mason’s Kabanicha thanks the bystanders – actually the audience – for their support, there’s not a soul in that audience who wouldn’t cheerfully throttle her.
Anne Mason (Kabanicha) © Robert Workman
Anne Mason (Kabanicha)
© Robert Workman

One of the glories of Kát’a Kabanová is Janáček’s sumptuous score, an endlessly varied stream of darkly beautiful harmony. Sadly, there were serious problems of balance (from my seat position, at least, relatively close to the trombones and percussion) both between orchestra and singers and between different components of the orchestra. Conductor Sian Edwards certainly had the City of London Sinfonia playing with spirit and there was no shortage of well turned phrases, but all too often, the individual instruments didn’t coalesce into a coherent whole, or if they did, it was at the expense of being able to hear the singers at their best. Edwards’ task was not being made any easier by the need to compete with some very noisy ventilation which sounded like a constant very low-level snare drum roll.

Nicky Spence (Tichon) © Robert Workman
Nicky Spence (Tichon)
© Robert Workman

With the exception of Hoare, whose clear tenor seemed able to cut through the loudest of the accompaniments, and Mikhail Svetlov’s Dikój, whose bass voice was sufficiently stentorian to overpower the orchestra at the low end, all of the singers were affected at one time or another. Sporsén sang with character but with a brittle edge; Curievici and Presland made us believe in them as the young lovers, but their big duet by the river in Act 2 Scene 2 was missing some of the sweetness that I would have hoped for.

In sum, a fine evening of operatic drama, but one in which I didn’t feel the full force of what the score has to offer.