Katya Kabanová’s fate in Leos Janácek’s opera is to suffer and die. Such is the fate of many opera heroins. Such has been the fate of women for centuries. Katya cannot live and be happy, because women are not designed by society to live and be happy. Whether the story takes place in 19th century Russia as in the play which inspired the story of Janácek’s opera, or whether the story takes place in the 1970s as in the staging imagined by Richard Jones for the new production of Katya Kabanova at the Royal Opera House, the issue remains the same: women’s eternal feeling of worthlessness and guilt, and the madness and suicide that are the logical consequences of this psychological state. Herein lies the main strength as well as the main flaw of the beautiful production I attended last night.
Does Richard Jones really think Katyà’s story is a thing of the past. Does he think that social and religious pressure on women has disappeared from our world, and even from the Western world ? Maybe he should look closer at what is happening today, for behind the social progress that have apparently emancipated women from religious and legal constraints the situation remains more or less the same. Women are still trapped in loveless marriages because of the social pressure for them to marry and have kids, they still suffer from mental illnesses and suicide because of their psychological and moral inability to break away from the diktats of society. Relocating this early 20th century Czech opera into a pre-1968 setting is not only a lack of imagination, it shows a lack of understanding of this opera’s relevance in today’s world. It’s not the lack of religious reference that bothered me so much, but the distanciation and the refusal to dig into the possible meaning of this opera for women today. The production is good, but it could have been great, and it’s a pity considering its musical quality.
Fortunately there is the musical interpretation, and its two brilliant heroes, the American soprano Amanda Majeski, whose intense performance is an absolute revelation, and the English conductor Edward Gardner, whose deep knowledge and understanding of Janácek’s music illuminates this production. There were both making their debuts at the Royal Opera House, but I bet they will be invited again in the future. Amanda Majeski towers a very strong vocal cast with her nuanced and powerful performance of Janacek’s tragic heroin. Her voice not only perfectly portrayed Katya’s purity and yearning for happiness, but also expressed the anxiety of a woman’s loneliness and her despair at being entrapped in a fate that she cannot escape. She had an admirable vocal control and a beautiful voice that she used to portray this tragic heroin with a total commitment.
What simply amazed me when I listened to the orchestra, and something I wasn’t expecting after reading many reviews of this production, was how well Edward Gardner managed to convey the Czech origins of Janácek’s score. The colors and textures he obtained from the musicians really sounded as close as one can expect for an English orchestra to an Eastern European orchestra, especially the brass and wind sections, which had the sourness and sharpness so typical of orchestras of Eastern Europe. He also elicited a remarkably sound from the strings, sometimes sensual and suave, sometimes sharp and slightly rough. The English conductor thus managed to convey the ebb and flow of the music, which like the Volga river of the story is worked by deep and subtle undercurrents.