Selecting the top ten of anything is an idle game, but any such list of 20th-century operas that did not include Leoš Janácek’s Kát’a Kabanová would be meaningless. He wrote it in 1921, when he was 67, in a wave of late inspiration that produced, in addition to this and four other extraordinary operas, the Sinfonietta, the Glagolitic Mass and the two string quartets. This outpouring was the direct result of the emotional turbulence aroused in him by his unconsummated passion for Kamila Stösslová, nearly 40 years his junior, one of the most productively inspiring muses in the history of music. We have much to be thankful to her for – perhaps especially for not succumbing to her elderly admirer’s advances, thus keeping him on the boil for years.
In Kát’a Janácek consciously channelled the emotions erupting within him into the central character and her longings, making even more of them than the great Russian dramatist Ostrovsky had done in The Storm, the play that is the source of the opera. Janácek’s idiom, rooted in the rhythms of the Czech language – its sequence of short, expressive units somehow organically welded together – is not easy, but British musicians, through long familiarity, have it in their bones. At the Royal Opera House, the superb orchestra and chorus under the fiery Janácek-specialist Edward Gardner, realised the ecstatic eruptions of the score with virtuosity: brass and wind were thrilling; the strings lean and taut, stabbing and soaring, aching with emotional need. One senses the impact Tchaikovsky and Puccini had on the composer, but every note is uniquely his.
A number of fine British singers are startlingly convincing: Andrew Staples as Kát’a’s sottish, mother-whipped husband Tichon; Clive Bayley as the violent reactionary Dikoj; and above all, Susan Bickley, indelible as Kabanicha, the mother-in-law from hell, circling Kát’a like a vicious black hen. Pavel Cernoch, sombrely handsome, the only native Czech singer in the cast, sings Kát’a’s lover Boris with urgent lyricism; grim-faced, even in love, he too is trapped, imprisoned. But the piece stands and falls on its heroine, and the young American soprano, Amanda Majeski, tall and blonde, inhabits the part with great poetic force, giving herself over to the searing vision of Richard Jones’s production.
The world they show us, designed by Anthony Macdonald with distilled simplicity, is not Ostrovsky’s universe, in which nature is omnipresent; it is a modern urban world, the interiors a little tacky, the exteriors encased in a great wooden box, lit by street lamps. Out of this they conjure a remarkable expressive language, always underlining the truth of the characters, never drawing attention to itself. Majeski, with her long tresses and simple gingham smock, seems almost too big for the 1970s house where she lives joylessly with her drunken husband and her mother-in-law. As she holds up the key to the secret garden in which she will consummate her love with Boris, she could almost be Lewis Carroll’s Alice: in a magical transformation the house glides back, shrinking, and interior becomes exterior, as Kát’a steps into the space where for a few rapturous moments she will yield up all the abundant love that is in her.
In another unforgettable sequence, when Boris leaves her, he walks backwards into the dark, merging with the chorus, utterly lost to her. Later the chorus becomes the Volga, swirling around Kát’a as she throws herself into the river. Jones’s sense of Kát’a as a child-woman, riven with a longing that she can scarcely comprehend, is rendered especially poignant by a picture of her young self on the theatre curtain, cradling a bird in her hands, happy and vital. “I used to be so alive,” she sings in act two, accompanied by a golden burst of orchestral glory.
This production reminds one that opera can be the supremely expressive performing art. Jones has created an entirely new context for the action, but has listened deeply to the music and penetrated to the heart of the characters’ hopes and fears. Nothing comes between Janácek, Ká’ta and us, reminding us, forcibly, of what it is to be human.
Royal Opera House
This article appears in the 13 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The revolution that fuelled radical Islam