Expressionism and verismo collide in Olivia Fuchs's production of Kat'a Kabanova, the last and finest of Opera Holland Park's 2009 season.
As Boris Grigorjevic (Tom Randle) urges unhappily married Kat'a (Anne Sophie Duprels) to take his hand, the lovers step out on to the violet waters of the Volga, suspended on the pulse of Janácek's score, uninhibited by the laws of nature or man. For this moment alone (lit exquisitely by Colin Grenfell), Fuchs's Kat'a would be unforgettable. As the centrepiece of a production in which closely observed character-work, rigorous attention to historical, social and psychological detail, fearless musicianship and realism and magic realism cohere, it is one of the most piercing and potent images I've seen.
Fuchs and designer Yannis Thavoris have moved the drama to 1919 (the year in which Janácek decided to adapt Ostrovsky's play) and a languid summer landscape where narrow paths of decking criss-cross the river. At one end is the drawing-room of the Kabanov house (a curving cage against which Kat'a beats her imaginary wings), at the other a bench where the schoolteacher Kudrjas (Andrew Rees) sits and observes the foibles of his fellow man. With the exception of Dikoj (Richard Angas), who still sports the long beard of the previous century and scoffs at the new-fangled notion of lightning conductors, this is a society taking its first, compromised steps (the women wear hobble skirts) towards modernity, then scuttling back to superstition.
Wedding rings are removed and replaced obsessively. That Kat'a, her step-sister and confidante Varvara (Patricia Orr) and the grotesque Kabanicha (Anne Mason) make their first appearance clothed in the purple, green and white colours of the suffragette movement is no coincidence. Fuchs's extends her theme of economic, religious and sexual oppression to include the servant girl Feklusa (Emma Carrington), who mournfully clutches a heavy crucifix to her breast while old Glasha (Nuala Willis) rolls her eyes, knowing that little will change her lot. Perhaps sexual frustration is a middle-class pursuit? Perhaps madness is? Either way, the townspeople spot any vulnerability, freezing in Expressionist gestures of outrage and disgust.
In the drawing-room, Kat'a and Varvara confess their frustrations, hands pressing at their skirts, their movements symptomatic of chlorosis or hysteria. A wistful, devout girl, Kat'a has been driven to neurosis by a sexless marriage. That Boris, economically dependent on Dikoj, is as weak as any wife or daughter is immaterial. The attraction is mutual, helpless, and sealed by the departure of Tichon (Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts). Emasculated and alcoholic, he too is oppressed, though by his mother, who indulges in a little joyless slap and tickle with Dikoj, rat-a-tat-tatting her hypocritical invective to Janácek's bristling staccato strings.
Under Stuart Stratford, the City of London Sinfonia plays with absolute engagement, relishing the febrile and furious lurches of this glorious, urgent tragedy. There are no weak links. Every characterisation is thorough, every note sung with meaning, Randle's ardent Boris and Duprels's immersion in Kat'a's guilt, longing and terror, like her Butterfly and Rusalka, sensational. Not simply the highlight of Holland Park's season, this Kat'a Kabanova is the highlight of the summer.
Still caught in that moment several days later, I was not in the most receptive frame of mind for Susan Graham's sunny lunchtime recital with Malcolm Martineau (Proms Chamber Concert 2). Had Holland Park done The Cunning Little Vixen instead, it might have been different, for this was a programme dominated by anthropomorphic frippery: Chabrier's "Les Cigalles"; Caplet's "Le corbeau et le renard"; Ravel's "Le paon"; and Rosenthal's "La souris d'Angleterre". Cheese plays a pivotal role in two of these songs and rather coloured the rest of them, most particularly Graham's coy male/female voicing of Debussy's "Colloque sentimental", and the radio presenter's fawning onstage interview. Interesting as it is to look beyond the standard mélodies, Franck's "Nocturne" is merely hack-work, and Graham is too sassy a presence to convince as a suicide ("La dame de Monte-Carlo").
That evening saw Jiri Belohlavek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra on very average form in a programme of Smetana, Bartok, Martinu and Stravinsky (Prom 15). I suspect it's hard to be anything other than average in a work that sounds as though the composer forgot to transcribe the first 50 bars (Martinu's Concerto for Two Pianos). But a mundane Petrushka is unusual, and even the sharp monochrome of Bartók's Dance Suite was grey and smudged. For full colour and high definition I had to wait for Andris Nelson's reading of Stravinsky's The Firebird with the CBSO (Prom 16), a triumph of discipline, energy and imagination. Though touched by Stephen Hough's reckless, tender performance of his own edition of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No 2, I'd have liked to have heard it undoctored, with even more from violinist Lawrence Jackson and cellist Ulrich Heinen.
'Kat'a Kabanova', Holland Park, London W14 (0845 230 9769) until 7 Aug.
The Proms (0845 401 5040), to 12 Sep