Katya Kabanova/The Magic Flute, English Touring Opera, Hackney Empire

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The Independent Culture

English Touring Opera, which has just started its annual tour, may seem like the perennial new kid on the block, but this year it’s celebrating its thirtieth anniversary.

And when you consider the artists who have done time with it - directors Richard Jones, Declan Donellan, and Stephen Pimlott, and a dazzling array of singers including Susan Bickley, Vivian Tierney, Sarah Connolly, Mary Plazas, Susan Gritton, and William Dazeley - you realise what a seminal effect it has had on British operatic life. It may operate on a shoestring, but it’s always been at the cutting edge.

By scheduling its new production of Janacek’s ‘Katya Kabanova’ the day after English National Opera revived David Alden’s award-winning take on the same composer’s ‘Jenufa’, ETO provokes illuminating comparisons. Alden’s show updates its story to a drab factory in Communist Czechoslovakia: since the drama must turn on a religious community’s double taboo – the murder of a loved but illegitimate child – the shock-effect, in this anti-religious context, is partially dissipated. But the drama intensifies as the work progresses, thanks to three singers whose voices are perfectly suited to Janacek’s burning lyricism – mezzo Michaela Martens as the murdering step-mother, her fellow-American Robert Brubaker as Jenufa’s faithful lover, and soprano Amanda Roocroft as the ideal incarnation of the heroine herself.

‘Katya Kabanova’, written when Janacek had found a more concentrated style, also turns on the breach of a moral taboo: Katya is stifled by her marriage to a mother-dominated booby, and yields to an adulterous love. Pared down for touring, and making no attempt to evoke the fateful river, James Conway’s production still manages to maintain the drama at white-hot intensity. Accolades to conductor Michael Rosewell and his small orchestra, and to a strong cast led by Linda Richardson in the title role. Tenors Richard Roberts and Michael Bracegirdle strike sparks off each other as the love-lorn Boris and his friend Vanya; Fiona Kimm makes a baleful mother-in-law, while Sion Goronwy turns the rich merchant Dikoy into a malign Giant Haystacks; Colin Judson’s hen-pecked Tichon and Jane Harrington’s impulsive Varvara are spot-on. Something should be done to make Katya’s suicide-jump convincing, but her loss of sanity has painful authenticity.

ETO’s banker this year is a new ‘Magic Flute’ which initially disconcerts – the ‘monster’ from which Tamino flees is a bunch of Nineties ravers – but once underway it has immediacy and bite. The stage consists of four gigantic steps leading to a raised sanctum, thus neatly (and cheaply) accommodating the symbolism of the Masonic trials; the lighting is effective, the chorus beautifully drilled. All the soloists are good, with Paula Sides an outstanding Pamina: her singing alone is worth the price of a ticket.