Katya Kabanova, considered Janáček’s first mature opera, was written on a libretto based on the play The Storm, by Russian playwright Alexander Ostrovsky. The plot is bleak, set in a Russian village on the banks of the Volga, where hypocrisy and small-mindedness drive a naïve, simple young woman to suicide. Katya is the young wife of a middle class merchant, Tichon, who lives under the heel of his mother, the terrifying Kabanicha. Another girl, the foundling Varvara, lives with them, and is in love with Kudrjaš, the teacher. Boris Grigorjevič, who lives with his oppressive Uncle Dikój, is smitten with Katya; this leads to an affair between them, taking advantage of one of Tichon’s business trips. When Tichon returns, in the middle of a storm, Katya is overwhelmed by guilt and shame, and confesses her infidelity in front of the whole village. Dikój sends Boris away to Siberia, the two lovers bid farewell to each other, and Katya commits suicide by throwing herself into the river.

Eva-Maria Westbroek (Katya) © Bernd Uhlig (2014)
Eva-Maria Westbroek (Katya)
© Bernd Uhlig (2014)

Andrea Breth’s interpretation of this story is even bleaker. Annette Murschetz's set represents the interior of a dilapidated house, where the colour palette is every conceivable shade of dark grey. Katya is asleep inside a fridge, while Kudrjaš sings of the majestic Volga, holding a bag with water and a goldfish. The only visual reference to the grand river is represented by a filthy rivulet crossing the dirt floor, where Glaša, the Kabanovs’ servant, is washing laundry. In Breth’s production, every element of joy, or even comfort, is perverted, rendered pointless, or ignored, while all the oppressive, desolate parts turn even more disturbing through mockery and vulgarity. Often the scenes seemed intentionally ugly, betraying an active pursuit of unpleasantness.

Katya is lying in a dirty bathtub when she’s dreaming about flying away, singing about her youth; Kabanicha is washing her son’s legs in a tub while she urges him to go on his business trip, and her complaining about his inattentiveness sounds disturbingly intimate. When the drunken Dikój arrives at the Kabanovs’ house, the scene between him and Kabanicha quickly becomes very explicit and vulgar. This helped the framing of the two bullies as hypocrites, but it felt a little uncalled for. The only real ray of hope in the whole opera – the young, spontaneous love between Varvara and Kudrjaš – is treated with a callous hand: when the two meet there is no tenderness, just rough lust, and when they decide to run away to Moscow together, they actually end up wandering around the stage each on their own. Katya does not throw herself in the Volga, but slits her wrists in the bathtub.

Eva-Maria Westbroek (Katya) © Bernd Uhlig (2014)
Eva-Maria Westbroek (Katya)
© Bernd Uhlig (2014)

The Volga, albeit removed from the visual experience, was a haunting presence in the sweeping music. Thomas Guggeis, principal assistant to Daniel Barenboim at the Staatsoper, led the Staatskapelle in a passionate, enthusiastic reading of the score. Janáček’s expressionist music tells a tale of powerful nature elements – the flowing of the river, the terrifying storm – mirrored in the strong emotions of the characters. The first bars of the overture, in complete darkness (even the “exit” signs were turned off in the theatre!) gave us goosebumps. The thoughtful dynamics and strong sense of drive that Guggeis managed to express through the orchestra resulted in an intense evening, which seemed to fly in a moment, despite the dull visuals.

Eva-Maria Westbroek mirrored the intensity coming from the pit with a committed, emotional performance. Her Katya was a somewhat shallow girl, mercilessly harassed by a cruel mother-in-law, looking for love in all the wrong places. Her breakdown during the storm was believable and profound. Her soprano was strong, with powerful high notes and a confident command of the Czech pronunciation. Her lover, Boris, was Simon O’Neill, his heroic tenor perfectly suited to the part. His love duet with Westbroek was perhaps the highlight of the evening, their voices melting in desperation and love.

Stephan Rügamer (Tichon), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Katya), Emma Sarkisyan (Glaša) © Bernd Uhlig (2014)
Stephan Rügamer (Tichon), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Katya), Emma Sarkisyan (Glaša)
© Bernd Uhlig (2014)

Anna Lapkovskaja sang with remarkable projection as Varvara, her mezzo coming through with great presence and a warm colour. Her lover, Kudrjaš, was Florian Hoffmann, whose light tenor was a nice contrast to O’Neill's more baritonal voice.

The great Karita Mattila was making her debut as Kabanicha; her dramatic interpretation managed to show every detail of her villainous character. Her voice expressed all the humiliating tones, the harshness of Kabanicha, but also her ambiguous feelings towards her son. In the spectacular last scene, when in a matter of minutes the tragedy unravels, Katya dies, her body is found, and Tichon cries desperately, Kabanicha last petty words fell like ice, sealing the drama with despair. A very successful debut.

***11