The first and most startling image of Trevor Nunn's new Royal Opera production of Katya Kabanova stays with you. But only in the dying moments of the opera do you see it for what it is - a premonition. As Katya's lifeless body is dragged from the river Volga, we see that wedding procession again, but this time it's a living, moving reality. The juxtaposition is chilling. Holy wedlock symbolises new beginnings. But it was Katya's prison. There was never a place for her free spirit in this stultifying, suffocating, hypocritical community. Death has brought liberation. Life goes on. And on.
So with that one simple idea Trevor Nunn brings full circle the sense of cyclic inevitability that is at the heart of this remarkable opera. His strength is, and always has been, to get to the point, to home in on the hard core of reality within any theatrical context. He doesn't get in the way. He gives his performers room. The only spare flesh is on his characters, not his production values. He knows to leave some things unspoken: like Kabanicha's implied sexual domination of the old merchant Dikoy. And the big operatic 'gestures' are economical and highly selective: like Katya's longing to take wing, to unite with her spirit in flight. Her poetic stance, arms outstretched, is heart- stoppingly mirrored by Boris at the close of Act 2 after their first and last passionate encounter. And as she makes her final leap for eternity, it is from the stone crucifix that confession of her heinous transgression has brought crashing down in the storm. Biblical irony indeed. God's wrath is her springboard to freedom.
The storm is, of course, the central metaphor of the piece and Maria Bjornson's powerful design sets us down right in the very eye of it: a dramatic vortex of streaked, spiralling, louring sky, river, and crumbling dirt road. Only one road, and it leads to the lower depths. Other 'naturalistic' trappings - like real cart- horses - give us the historical context without watering down the metaphor.
Musically, this Katya is of a very high order indeed. There are no imbalances in the casting. For once, the young lovers Kudryash (Christopher Ventris) and Varvara (Monica Groop) are more than just local colour; Kim Begley's bear of a Tikhon may actually have grown through this tragedy, you feel; and, as Boris, the other spineless man in Katya's life, there is a wiry, young American, Keith Olsen, whose dynamic stage presence and fearless way with the impossible tessitura make quite an impression. At the heart of it all, though, is Eva Randova's black widow, Kabanicha - black of heart and voice, ramrod straight - and Elena Prokina's searing Katya. Through her voice and her body language, she communicates a rare quality of rapture. The voice, thrilling at full tilt, is no less intense when working on a breath of sound. And she 'internalises' the role like no one I've ever seen: when she speaks of 'the murmuring in her ear, gently as a dove', you really do hear the voice. To some, Bernard Haitink's impassioned conducting will have tipped the musical scales too heavily in favour of the sumptuous over the serrated elements. Perhaps. But I don't think he compromised the neurotic ostinati, the exposed nerve-ends of a score poised so precariously between longing and despair. And no one could have been truer to Janacek in making the lovers' last embrace the most refulgent climax of all.
In rep to 25 March (071-240 1911)
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