Leeds Grand Theatre
1 hour 40 minutes
2 February 2019 – 27 February 2019; tours to Lowry Lyric, Salford, 7 March 2019
No one could call it a bundle of laughs – Janacek’s story of domestic abuse, guilt and suicide is not meant to be chuckled at. And yet there was a knowing giggle from the audience as the curtain fell on act two, scene one, on the night I saw it, as the obnoxious, rich and bullying Dikoy stuck his hand up Katya’s prim and proper mother-in-law’s skirt.
That move didn’t really fit with the rest of Tim Albery and designer Hildegard Bechtler’s telling of the story – first seen here 20 years ago and revised in 2007.
Costumes are universally drab-grey, the better to emphasise the stifling and loveless respectability of the society poor, passionate Katya lives in, and the set shows glimpses of a more colourful world beyond, as if to point towards the dreams she might have had of a fulfilled existence.
Katya is married to a weak man, Tichon, who has turned to drink; they have no children, and her mother-in-law makes both of their lives miserable through her merciless and demanding self-pity, despite an appearance of churchgoing piety.
When she sends Tichon off on a business trip, Dikoy’s young nephew Boris, who’s dependent on his uncle’s goodwill to get anything from his inheritance but has fallen for Katya in a big way, takes his chance of an illicit liaison with her in the shrubbery, not without enthusiastic help from Varvara, her foster-sister, who is herself having a good time with Boris’s mate, Kudryash.
Katya is plagued by guilt, and when Tichon returns unexpectedly early she collapses mentally – it only takes Boris’s acceptance of Dikoy’s decision to send him away to tip her over the edge (of the river bank).
The whole three-act opera is concisely written (Opera North does it without interval inside one hour 40 minutes), and tautly dramatic, and Janacek packs all the passion into his orchestral score, while his characters follow his principle of singing with the intonations of ordinary speech (in Czech, originally).
It’s a great achievement, musically, as Opera North has the orchestra to do that score wonderful justice. In Sian Edwards’ hands it comes gloriously alive, while the principals are outstanding singers also.
For me, the women had more to offer than the men in the acting department, with Stephanie Corley (their former Hanna Glawari in The Merry Widow and Kristina in The Makropulos Case) outstandingly affecting as Katya. Heather Shipp, who was Carmen for them only a few years ago, turned herself into the operatic equivalent of Ena Sharples with equal success, while Katie Bray made Varvara a flesh-and-blood, liberated youngster.
Andrew Kennedy was a bit too much Mr Nice Guy for Tichon (he sang like a dream), and Stephen Richardson’s Dikoy was vocally refined but perhaps not quite repulsive enough. Harold Meers sang Boris nobly but with only a little evidence of the unrestrained obsession that lights the fuse of Katya’s downfall.