Katya Kabanova, Coliseum, London
Emanuel Ax/Dawn Upshaw, Barbican Hall, London

Costumes and hairpieces are no substitute for character

David Alden's English National Opera production presents Katya Kabanova as an Expressionist concentrate of silent screams and mucoid hawking. Its focus, like that of Alexander Ostrovsky's play, is the thunderstorm in Act III: electricity, according to the young schoolteacher, Kudrjas; a judgement from God, according to Dikoy, the grotesque caricature of Old Russia's merchant class. Judgement threatens from the first bars of Janacek's score, in the dry strokes of the timpani, so too the mauve depths of the Volga and the unchecked sobs of a woman spiralling to her death. Also there, though not in Alden's Munch-meets-Mayakovsky staging, is the heavy stillness of high summer and the weightless bliss of a stolen kiss.

Intervals serve a purpose beyond physical comfort. In Katya, that purpose is to allow the listener to lie on the riverbank with our lonely heroine and her weak lover, to suspend for a moment her headlong rush to oblivion. Eleven days pass between Tikhon's departure and Katya's confession, 11 nights with Boris. Yet here, as in Tim Albery's 2007 Opera North production, the momentum is not broken after Act II. Magnificent as Mark Wigglesworth's conducting is in its ferocity, every detail as sharp as the shadows cast by Adam Silverman's lighting on Charles Edwards's abstracted set, we are not permitted to hope that the lovers might escape. From our first sight of Katya (Patricia Racette), she is poised on a precipice, beaten by the impossibility of being an ideal wife and daughter-in-law to two people who cannot, will not, love her.

Much has been written of Janacek's muse, Kamila Stoss-lova, and her influence on Katya Kabanova. The slender, sad-eyed young woman photographed in 1917 soon disappeared behind a cladding of plumpness and prosperity, as Katya might have done had her marriage been less wretched. Cut Kamila out of the picture and each character can be seen as a facet of Janacek's nature: the dreaming soul, the hectoring tyrant, the cold husband, the sophisticated observer. Then there is the empty cradle. Is Katya barren? Is Tikhon impotent? Alden doesn't explore this. His villains are cartoonish, his heroine a hysteric lost in fantasies of flying, cathedrals and mountains, her husband (John Graham-Hall) as ineffectual as the Pekinese dog in Act I. Boris (Stuart Skelton), a preening, corn-fed capon, seals his conquest with a post-coital cigarette.

This, then, is not a tragedy of love crushed by provincial morality but a Freud and Breuer case study. Racette's voice is clear, strong, sincere. But there's no Slavic darkness (a big ask in an English translation), no turtledove tremulousness. Society is confined to a blur of umbrellas. The relationship between Alfie Boe's vital, independent Kudrjas and Anna Grevelius's bohemian Varvara is the only example of mutual kindness and candour. Elsewhere, instead of character, we have costumes and hairpieces: Skelton's mustard-yellow top-coat and waxed moustache, Susan Bickley's carapace of a chignon, topped with a hat like an angry diacritic. We don't learn what drives Kabanicha's fury, and with Clive Bayley's Dikoy spitting and scuttling across the stage like a furry beetle, there is something Roald Dahl-ish about both of them, Aunt Spiker and Mr Twit. Theatrically, vocally and orchestrally, Alden's Katya is arresting, impressively executed, very much in the company style. But by emphasising Expressionism over lyricism, its power is diminished.

For the final concert in his Barbican residency, Emanuel Ax shared the stage with Dawn Upshaw and Mr Melnyk. Mr Melnyk was invisible, of course, but Ax's first piano teacher was one of a breed celebrated in Stephen Prutsman's sweet-tempered song-cycle Piano Lessons: a setting of Billy Collins's poems on the mysterious world that opens out as a student progresses from five-finger exercises in the "open book" key of C to the "black boot" of G flat and beyond. The piano's "enormous moonlit smile" beamed through this intimate programme of songs, mazurkas and nocturnes, sung with warmth and wonder by Upshaw and played with delicacy and intelligence by Ax, each phrase gently curving into silence, with none of the angst and ego commonly associated with Chopin. An artful Schumann selection of songs closed with "Widmung", its pathos and joy ideally balanced.



'Katya Kabanova': (0871 911 0200) to 27 March



Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn