It is always exciting to see a great opera for the first time. Katya Kabanova was premiered in Czechoslavakia in 1921 but it didn’t make it to the Royal Opera House until 1994. Missing that reputedly brilliant production, I have only just caught up with this tragic drama. It is the second in the ROH Janacek series. In 2018 they produced The House of the Dead whose staging failed to solve the problem of multiple simultaneous narratives. The music, on the other hand was played with glorious panache. This present production of Katya Kabanova with director Richard Jones, designer Antony Macdonald and conductor, Edward Gardner, succeeds triumphantly on all counts.

Katya is played and sung with touching realism by American soprano, Amanda Majeski. She looks like a beautiful child, pale and fragile, torn apart by her bullying mother in law and her weak husband. Tichon Kabanov is sympathetically sung and acted by Andrew Staples, for, in his timid way, Tichon loves Katya, incurring the unceasing, jealous wrath of his mother. Although her position is pitiful, Katya has still a romantic soul which springs into life when a stranger to the town falls in love with her. The romance is in the singing which Majeski expresses with grace and confidence, although never losing the sense of Katya’s vulnerability.

The object of her love, Boris Grigorjevic, sung elegantly by Pavel Cernoch, is another young person whose life is dominated by a cruel relative; his uncle has forced him to leave Moscow by threatening to withold his inheritance. The tragedy lies in Katya’s character so that, even without the dangers from ill-wishers like her mother-in-law, condemns herself for her sinfulness. She has been driven by her miserable situation, to act against her own high moral code and thus destroyed herself.

As counterbalance to Katya’s emotional suffering, we are given the Kabanov’s ward, Varvara, sung by Emily Edmonds who encourages Katya in her desperate romance, and is quite unable to understand the depth of her sister-in-law’s feelings. As Katya sinks, Varvara playfully teases her lover, Kudrajs, sung by Andrew Tortise.

The opera is in three acts but lasts for under two hours until with horrible predictability Katya throws herself into the Volga. The level of intensity never falters, increased by a chorus of locals who swirl about the stage in a menacing ever-changing phalanx and the ultimate in small town menace. The atmosphere is heightened still further by the thunderstorm that beats across the stage. In fact the play that inspired Katya Kabanova was called The Thunderstorm, written by Ostrafsky in 1859.

Janacek’s own feelings of being the eternal outsider found inspiration in the story whose heroine, like Katya, is bullied by her mother-in-law, although neglected by her husband. A disastrous affair ends in her suicide. In the opera, the role of Kabanicha, the matriarch, is filled with violence and hatred and is sung and acted with horrible conviction by Susan Bickley. In the final scene of the opera, her son, Tichon, carries Katya’s body, still dripping with water from the river, into the centre of the stage. His loving posture infuriates Kabanicha who tries to tear Katya from him. It seems that Kabanicha’s struggle for ownership of her son’s heart will continue even after Katya’s death.

Katya Kabanova
Laos Janacek
Conductor: Edward Gardner
Director: Richard Jones
Designer: Antony Macdonald