Katya Kabanova, Hackney Empire, London
The Magic Flute, Hackney Empire, London

Even a flawed tour is a gift to the nation

Written nearly 20 years after Jenufa and adapted from Alexander Ostrovsky's play The Storm, Janácek's sixth opera, Katya Kabanova, gnaws at the same bones of public shame and private horror. A domineering matriarch, a claustrophobic community, a feckless lover, a pulsing river. A dreaming, doomed, hypersensitive heroine. The sumptuous orchestral hues are similar, yet there is no illegitimate pregnancy, no penknife, no infanticide and no redemption. Where Jenufa's story is meticulously detailed, we must take much of Katya's on trust. Though the Kabanicha's verbal abuse stings and smarts in our ears, the physical abuse remains unseen.

As one audience member whispered during English Touring Opera's new production of Katya, why doesn't she just leave? Designed by Adam Wiltshire, James Conway's muted staging does little to suggest the numb despair of a victim of domestic abuse: the passivity, the alienation. And it takes more than the unbuttoning of a fin de siècle jacket to convey the unravelling of a personality. Played out in front of a cracked panel of grey-green glass, a stifling screen of dull wallpaper, religious icons, and, finally, a Cornelia Parker-esque installation of a fragmented Day of Judgement fresco, Katya's suicide in the river Volga becomes little more than a tragic vignette; something to be recalled over a long evening of bookish conversation and plum vodka by the teacher Kudryash (Michael Bracegirdle), years after his escape to Moscow with Varvara (Jane Harrington).

Characters with a future beyond the end of the opera are always fascinating. Much as a fine Marcello and Musetta can disrupt La Bohème, Kudryash and Varvara can unbalance an undercast Katya. Harrington's rapt, girlish voice and uninhibited movements have a vulnerability, sensuality and candour that makes Linda Richardson's Katya seem stiff and dry. Though Richardson's singing is persuasive, it is difficult to believe that she was ever a girl who dreamed of flying. Meanwhile, Colin Judson's Tichon is as dangerous as a kitten who has sniffed too much catnip. Swap Judson with Richard Roberts's anonymous Boris; make Bracegirdle into Tichon (wiry and unpredictable would work in this role too); Cast Harrington as Katya (someone will soon); hang on to conductor Michael Rosewell's handsome reading of the score; search harder for a more threatening, more charismatic Kabanicha than Fiona Kimm; lose the hammy beggars and tidy the blocking; and this Katya could sear like Jenufa. As it stands, it left me dreadfully cold.

Stronger by far is Liam Steel's production of The Magic Flute: an exuberant, aerobic staging that cuts mercifully swiftly through the Masonic longueurs of Act II. Painted in the deepest blue, the striking, three-tiered, 18th-century interior, by designer Chloe Lamford, stands for temple and forest. Its trapdoors are used to great effect in the entrance of the Queen of the Night (Laure Meloy), its lampshade motif is a coy, possibly over-cute representation of enlightenment. The snake is a predatory conga of material girls and lounge lizards; the birds are brightly coloured origami figures; the Three Ladies (Cheryl Enever, Patricia Orr and Niamh Kelly) form a trio of black-clad, stiletto-heeled vamps; the Three Boys (Anne-Marie Cullum, Heather Longman and Melanie Lang) are Persian pages; and Pamina (Paula Sides) is a bookish, Gainsborough beauty.

Stylishly and subtly sung, especially by Sides, with bracing tempi from conductor Paul McGrath and crisp ensemble work from Daniel Grice's highly watchable Papageno and Mark Wilde's bashful Tamino, this Magic Flute should charm English Touring Opera's audiences from Truro to Perth.



'Katya Kabanova' / 'The Magic Flute', Hall for Cornwall, Truro (01872 262466) 23-25 Mar, then touring

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