Three UK companies are staging Janacek’s tragedy of Russian provincial life almost simultaneously.
Opera North’s revival of Tim Albery’s 2007 production opened in Leeds on February 2, while Stephen Lawless’ new staging for Scottish Opera launches in Glasgow on March 12; in London, meanwhile, the Royal Opera presents its own version.
Richard Jones moves the action to the 1960s – a favourite destination for the director’s relocations. Antony McDonald’s sets are regularly spare and occasionally bare – the denouement takes place in a plain wooden box with just a couple of doors and a bench. The municipal bus shelter where the characters find refuge from the climactic storm is a singularly un-atmospheric replacement for the riverside ruin wth religious resonances of the libretto.
The Kabanov residence shows the family – members of the merchant class in Ostrovsky’s mid-19th-century source play – a cut above their fellow townsfolk in worldly resources.
Katya’s husband Tichon even drives a car, to which his wife repeatedly fails to gain entry as she desperately tries to persuade him to take her with him on his business trip, rather than leave her to the depredations of his cruelly intimidating mother.
The rest of the community – especially the men – maintain a predatory interest in Katya even in the final scene when she is quite literally suicidal.
Throughout, indeed, Jones demonstrates an unerring eye for the unhappiness of the individuals in this unhappy community – surprisingly so in the case of the opera’s least sympathetic character.
In the opera’s final moments Tichon blames his mother Kabanicha for his wife’s suicide – though in reality he shares the guilt; but throughout the evening a measure of vulnerability registers in Susan Bickley’s absorbing, grandly sung portrayal of a figure who has become Katya’s mortal enemy merely because the younger woman has married her beloved son.
As in most productions, Tichon is presented as an alcoholic unable to cope with his mother’s unrelenting intimidation – a weak individual strongly drawn in Andrew Staples’ portrayal.
At the centre of the piece is Amanda Majeski’s profoundly committed Katya, vocally on the light side but nevertheless revealing the character’s distressing vulnerability whilst convincingly charting her trajectory as she spirals ever downwards.
Well matched to Majeski’s resources as her lover Boris, Czech tenor Pavel Cernoch is skilful in defining the second of the two men who fail her. Clive Bayley’s blustering Dikoy is a fine character study, vividly voiced.
Sarah Fahie’s brilliance at moving groups of actors gives the wider community a stronger presence in the piece than usual.
Musically this is a fine night for the chorus and orchestra. In his auspicious main-stage debut with the company, conductor Edward Gardner combines potent atmosphere with sharp detail in his clear-eyed realisation of the emotionally complex score.