Janacek Katya Kabanova, English National Opera, London Coliseum

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The Independent Culture

English National Opera’s new staging of Janacek’s heartbreaking Katya Kabanova is cast big: big voices, big performers casting big shadows.

Director David Alden has always embraced shadows – deep, lowering, expressionistic shadows - and here with Charles Edwards his designer, Adam Silverman his lighting designer, and Edvard Munch their inspiration, the shadows totally overwhelm the forlorn figures that cast them. There are the hellish red and green tints, too, and even at one point, where Katya’s spineless husband Tikhon is confronted with her infidelity, the silent scream. That shall be the leitmotif for the entire evening.

Alden and Edwards really have stripped their vision of the piece to the bone. A chip-board wall, half painted with door askew, an abstract splash of water from the ever-present Volga, and one sinister relic of Russian poster art – a vision of the devil, pitchfork at the ready to torment Katya for her “sinful act” when the lightening strike of fate seals her destiny.

Her isolation – indeed everybody’s isolation - is something which is made painfully apparent on the unforgiving rake of Alden’s desolately open stage. The sheer distance at which the protagonists are often set apart from each other accentuates their irreconcilability. At Katya’s final meeting with her lover Boris (the excellent Stuart Skelton – ENO’s magnificent Grimes) the moment they look into each other’s eyes for the last time is not one of intimacy but of hopeless division.

Katya essentially inhabits a parallel dreamworld in this piece and in her first and most extensive aria – provocatively begun in front of an iconic portrait of Christ – she is truly “with the angels”. A beatific solo horn ushers her into a paradise that exists only in her reclusive imagination. It’s at moments like these that I would welcomed greater warmth, greater humanity, and indeed vulnerability, in Patricia Racette’s singing of the role. It’s a big and impressively uninhibited instrument she possesses and she gives unstintingly – but it’s pretty unyielding and the acting is somewhat “applied” in that familiar operatic manner which makes the character on stage almost indistinguishable from the performer at her elaborate solo curtain call.

All the performances are writ large bordering on the grotesque, though, and that, for Alden, is an indication of their absurdity and of the entrenched provincialism that has bred them – all, that is, except the youngsters Vanya and Varvara - Alfie Boe and Anna Grevelius – whose refreshing honesty represents a freer tomorrow.

And so the monstrous Kabanicha (indomitable Susan Bickley) is done up like a black widow, hair piled high and severe like a malevolent Norma Desmond. To her, everybody defers: her weak and violent son Tikhon (a terrifically irrational John Graham-Hall) who can never shake off his poisonous inheritance, and the pompous Dikoy (Clive Bayley in Bluebeard mode) who lives for her chastisement.

But the protagonist of the evening is the ENO orchestra attending to every facet of Janacek’s painfully beautiful and brutal score. Mark Wigglesworth conducts it magnificently, with passion and a quiet understanding, where silences become prophecies and a solo string bass line can unlock all the sorrows in the world in Katya’s final moments.