Arts: Opera: A dark study of oppression

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The Independent Culture
WOMEN composers, despite some recent re-discoveries, have been rare enough, women opera composers rarer still. Opera has been largely a male creation, and feminist critics have not been slow to suggest that operatic heroines reflect male assumptions - women as victims, for instance. The heroine of Katya Kabanova is a prime example, you might say.

But there's a double problem here. If many operatic women are victims, does this not reflect reality? And then who, in Katya Kabanova, are we meant to sympathise with, if not Katya? Janacek's sympathy for mistreated women is obvious, and in Katya he re-structured Ostrovsky's play of social criticism, The Storm, to focus nearly all the attention on Katya's tragedy. In Tim Albery's striking new production, Katya chalks her name up at the back of the stage during the opera's prelude. Her mother-in-law, Kabanicha, remains the embodiment of the rigid morality to which Katya falls victim.

Albery treats the opera as a study in repression, and Katya is not the only one to suffer from it. In the brief scene between Kabanicha (Gillian Knight) and the drunken Dikoy (Jeremy White), we see her briefly give way to the tenderness and lust which she so sternly conceals.

There are many powerful theatrical images. Four upright chairs are used to considerable effect. In Act One the members of the Kabanov family sit apart from each other on them, encased in their separate unhappinesses. At the opening of Act Two they are lined up across the front of the stage, and the three women work at their embroidery. In the Act Three storm, which is the moment of crisis for Katya, the chairs are set swinging on wires from above.

It took Vivian Tierney a while to settle vocally into the role of Katya and there were moments of strain. Perhaps she was not always helped by the conductor, Steven Sloane, who obtained some fine playing, but pushed the score hard, not allowing enough scope for the tenderness which is so much part of her character and of the music. She gave a moving account of her final scenes, though, and her overall interpretation was as touching and disturbing as it should be.

Alan Oke as Boris and Jamie MacDougall as Kudryash both gave much pleasure. Gillian Knight's singing was harsher even than the part allows for.

This is a dark interpretation of a dark story, its final denouement overwhelming.

`Katya Kabanova' is at the Grand Theatre, Leeds until 8 Oct (0113 222 6222), and then touring to London, Newcastle, Manchester and Nottingham.

Radio 3 will broadcast a live performance of this production this Saturday at 7.10pm