Sometimes you leave a theatre knowing that what you have just witnessed was something special. That was undoubtedly the case with Scottish Opera’s opening night of Janáček’s Katya Kabanova. It’s one of those rare productions where everything comes together to make something magical. The score, the story, the musicians, the singing, the acting (often overlooked in opera), the lighting, the costumes, and the set (& boy, what a set!) were all in complete and wonderful harmony to create a world so enthralling that to witness it felt a privilege.
Does that sound over the top? I urge you to go and see for yourself and tell me I’m wrong – and you should as it’s an experience to be shared as widely as possible. Let me try and break it down further, for my own benefit as much as for yourself. First, the story. Although I write about and review Scottish writing on this site my first loves are the 19th century Russians, and although Janáček is Czech, Katya Kabanova is planted firmly in Mother Russia.
If you know the works of Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Chekhov, Tolstoy, (or if you have seen the Woody Allen film Love & Death), you’ll be familiar with the themes of unrequited or thwarted love leading to tragedy, existential crisis, familial machinations (mothers-in-laws often get a bad press) and the fickle and often infuriating nature of man. New industry is often in conflict with the old, and new values also challenge the status quo. Katya Kabanova captures all of this completely. There are even fields of wheat on stage – a recurring and significant image in Russian literature – and like those classic novels Janáček, and Scottish Opera, have created a world in which to immerse yourself.
If I was to say that this is an opera which works on many levels then I mean you to take that metaphorically, but also literally. The set is dominated by a two-way bridge which moves and morphs throughout, not unlike an Escher picture brought to life. If there were ever a theatre adaptation of Iain Banks’ novel The Bridge then they need look no further for inspiration for the centre piece. Reminiscent of H.R. Giger’s drawings for the Nostromo spaceship in the first Alien movie, with the same heft and otherworldliness, it made me think of the theatre of Robert LePage and I can give no higher praise than that.
Beneath the bridge are the marshlands and mud-fields where the hard work is done, assignations are made, and people come to lose themselves while those higher up go busily about their day and are usually too busy to notice what is beneath them. Visually, when put together, it’s an incredible achievement, so much so that at times you could forget that what you are watching is not on a screen but on stage. This is opera as spectacle, but it never threatens to overshadow the characters and performers. Indeed, it seems to bring out the best in them.
Although the leads were superb, especially Laura Wilde as Kátya Kabanová and Patricia Bardon as Kabanicha, this was an ensemble piece as every member of cast played their role, and when married to the music what was created was an all-out assault on the senses in the best possible way. When a particular dramatic event happened near the end there was a collective intake of breath from an audience who were rapt throughout.
All of the above is really just a long and detailed way of saying that this is a production not to miss. It is another example of Scottish Opera being a company to treasure as whether it’s their Opera Highlights show in Victoria Hall in Dunblane (as they are tonight) or something with the scale and ambition of Kátya Kabanová they always deliver. Scottish Opera are at the top of their game right now, and we should be thankful for that.
Thanks to Scottish Opera for the use of these images – Credit James Glossop