Salzburg Festival 2022
“So quiet, so beautiful around here… and I must die”, these are the last words that Káťa pronounces before throwing herself into the river Volga. She prefers death to the bigotry and oppression surrounding her, she prefers to disappear in the peace of nature rather than enduring the daily tortures of her sadistic mother-in-law Kabachina.
Káťa, like Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, an opera greatly admired by Janáček, is the protagonist of a story of a woman’s loneliness and her rejection by her own people. But whereas Puccini’s hapless geisha lives in a distant idealised Japan, Káťa lives in the real world of the 20th century, in a small village on the banks of the river Volga. Janáček used the Russian drama “Thunderstorm” by Alexander Ostrovsky as the inspiration for his libretto. The composer is interested in real-people stories and in the dignity and freedom of the human being. We can see this adherence to realism not only in the subjects of his operas but also in the short and minimalist melodic lines sung by his characters, which try to mimic the rhythms of the way the common people of his native Moravia talk. Only for Káťa the composer reserves the most intense and lyrical melodies in stark contrast with the short, repetitive, and screamed motifs sung by her brutal mother-in-law.
Nature is another recurrent theme of this opera, we can feel it in the music and hear it in the words of the libretto. However, the director Barrie Kosky leaves no space for any idyllic representation of rural Russia, except for a few sound effects at the beginning of each act (songbirds, storm, etc.). Everything is hostile, inhuman, and claustrophobic like the stage design: a giant stone wall looming on the audience with its walled-up arcades. Hundreds of human-sized puppets populate the stage. All of them turn their backs to the audience, a metaphor of hostility and rejection towards Káťa. Franck Evin’s sophisticated lighting concept reinforces this sense of oppression.
Kosky focuses mainly on the characters, their complex psychology, and their motives. Strong sexual energy pervades this production: the three couples of this drama, Káťa and her lover Boris, Kabachina and Boris’uncle Dikoj, Varvara and Váňa, express three different viewpoints on love. Not surprisingly, Kabachina is a sadistic dominatrix and the equally abusive Dikoj her slave, whereas Varvara and Váňa live their erotic experience with the carelessness of youth. But for Káťa, trapped in a loveless (and possibly sexless) marriage with a drunkard husband and humiliated by her abusive mother-in-law, love is an escape from her grim reality. She is hesitant in the beginning and later gives in to Boris’s advances, but in the end, she feels guilty and feels compelled to confess her sin and die.
The soprano Corinne Winters gives an outstanding interpretation of Káťa’s tormented character. She expresses intensely her mixed emotions of fear and desire, her desperation, and her restlessness. The rest of the cast is equally good. David Butt Philip interprets the role of Boris with passion.
Evelyn Herlitzius in the role of Kabanicha is a convincing torturer, as Jaroslav Březina is convincing in the role of her son Tichon, who is equally abused by the mother and as a consequence loves his wife Káťa in an abusive way. Benjamin Hulett as Váňa and Jarmila Balážová as Varvara charm the audience with their youthful energy. Finally, Jens Larsen as Dikoj brings a bit of comic relief to an otherwise dark drama.
The exceptional Wiener Philarmoniker Orchestra expresses all the hidden emotions of the characters and the conductor Jakub Hester chisels every musical passage, reacting promptly to the events unfolding on stage.
This performance is a streamlined yet powerful representation of Janáček’s masterpiece. Not to be missed.
- Composer: Leoš Janáček
- Libretto: Leoš Janáček after the play "Thunderstorm" by Alexander Ostrovsky
- Conductor: Jakub Hrůša
- Director: Barrie Kosky
- Orchestra: Vienna Philharmonic
- Cast: Corinne Winters, Jens Larsen, David Butt Philip, Evelyn Herlitzius, Jaroslav Březina, Benjamin Hulett, Jarmila Balážová
- Venue: Felsenreitschule, Salzburg
- Duration: approx 1h 45m
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