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Katya Kabanova review at Opera Holland Park, London – ‘incisive eloquence’

Julia Sporsen in Katya Kabanova at Opera Holland Park, London Julia Sporsen in Katya Kabanova at Opera Holland Park, London. Photo: Robert Workman
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Opera Holland Park rarely brings a production back, but this show from 2009 proves well worth reviving. Janacek’s 1921 Katya Kabanova is an outstanding example of his work – highly original and musically punchy, yet also lyrical and emotionally direct.

Making her company debut in the pit, conductor Sian Edwards understands its complex style perfectly, and she and the City of London Sinfonia convey the score’s atmospheric power with incisive eloquence.

Based on a mid-19th-century play, Katya takes place in a provincial Russian town in the 1860s. Fuchs and her designer Yannis Thavoris move it forward, without any loss, to Janacek’s own time, with the costumes particularly redolent of that period.

The stage pictures show us the Volga and the circumscribed, prison-like emotional world of Julia Sporsen’s desperately vulnerable Katya, locked into a loveless marriage with cowardly drunk Tichon – superbly played by Nicky Spence – and mercilessly bullied by Anne Mason’s vindictive Kabanicha – opera’s mother-in-law from hell.

Peter Hoare’s considered performance as Katya’s feckless, ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ lover Boris completes the central quartet – but there are further skilled and equally finely sung assumptions from Clare Presland as the foundling girl Varvara, Paul Curievici as the schoolteacher Kudrjas, and Mikhail Svetlov as the masochistic merchant Dikoj. Taken altogether, this is an exemplary cast.

The opera also provides another great night for the company’s chorus, trained by Paul Wingfield, which enters fully into the spirit of the show, adopting some complex, quasi-expressionist movement with conviction.

With a substantially Anglophone cast, there is a strong case for performing Janacek’s Czech operas in English, which might have made this Katya even more involving. But the combination of Fuchs’ intelligent direction and the exceptional team who bring the piece alive already achieve something special.

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Revival of Olivia Fuchs’ staging of Janacek’s powerful opera that hits the spot