Classical Music Live: Katya Kabanova Samuel Beckett Theatre, Dublin

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The Independent Culture
Since it began touring in 1986, Opera Theatre Company has taken small-scale stagings to all parts of Ireland and abroad (most recently Amadigi at Buxton). The repertoire ranges from Handel to Britten, as well as to new commissions and realisations, including a couple of years ago an electroacoustic version of Monteverdi's Orfeo. Their new production of Janacek's Katya Kabanova had been maturing nicely at a number of venues across Ireland by the time I caught up with it in Dublin.

Pace and ensemble were by now nicely honed. Of the late Janacek operas, Katya and The Makropulos Case have struck me as the ones that could gain most from a scaled-down approach; in Katya, where the shortest phrases and smallest gestures count for so much, the benefits of being close to the audience in concentrated surroundings were immediately apparent. My only general complaint about an otherwise impressive reading was the way the cast responded vocally to the performing space. The Samuel Beckett Theatre is an elegant black box, but the vibrancy of its acoustic encouraged everyone to push a little too hard. In an opera where the ranges are on the high side, this became rather enervating; when the dynamic dropped to a more intimate level, the results, for instance at the magical close of Act 2, were just as impressive.

Musical values were strong throughout. Nothing can replace the chilling drumbeats of the opening nor the warmth of Janacek's string-writing, but Dearbhla Collins's piano playing was far more than a read-through of an orchestral reduction; this was a rounded, symphonic performance of Janacek's marvellous score with a sharpness of co-ordination between piano and stage that was rich compensation for the loss of instrumental colour.

James Conway's production seemed designed to do little more than tell the story; given the size of the performing space and Francis Conway's spare though highly effective set, acting as magnifying glasses, this was almost enough. The only point at which the production failed to project the drama was at the end. Katya's suicide and its brief follow-up move with appalling swiftness - establishing Kabanicha's authority over this desperate scene is never easy and on this occasion the tension that should have been there didn't materialise. This was a pity, since throughout the opera the cast were superbly attuned to their roles. James Drummond Nelson was maddeningly convincing as the hopeless Tichon, no match at all for the romantic attraction of Iain Paton's Boris, still less for Frances McCafferty's blistering Kabanicha. After a long succession of rather flimsy, virginal Katyas, Regina Hanley's reading of the title role was refreshing for its substance; her studied directness of approach quickly established the depth of her predicament. Even more compelling as a performance was Kathleen Tynan's Varvara, chillingly practical and enormously attractive vocally. Apart from the underpowered end, OTC's Katya was scaled-down opera as it should be - direct and unfussy, ready to turn limitations into advantages.

n Details of further performances: 00 353 16794962