OPERA / Once more, with feeling: Edward Seckerson on Scottish Opera's Katya Kabanova

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The Independent Culture
The trees are barren, the skies perpetually overcast. It is summer. The source of Janacek's Katya Kabanova, Alexander Ostrovsky's play The Storm, is central to the look and feel of Mark Brickman's new production for Scottish Opera. More look than feel, as it turns out. The symbols of oppression, stagnation, death, and decay, are all present and correct in Richard Aylwin's designs. The current trend for lowering 'operatic' sculptures duly delivers the angel of death bearing chains and a forbidding evocation of the fall from grace to damnation.

But whatever happened to the drama within? The emotional home-truths begin and end, of course, in Janacek's orchestra and I'm sure that under Richard Armstrong's seasoned direction these febrile notes will soon carry more purpose and intensity than they did on the first night. The unvarnished sound quality is resolutely, astringently, in place, the flayed ledger-line writing in the strings, indeed all the extremities - from ethereal violin harmonics to the depths of contra-bassoon - well-heard. But the earth has yet to move. The real climax of the piece comes at the close of Act 2 where all Katya and Boris's pent-up emotion is explosively released in three highly-charged orchestral phrases. But in the pit, and on stage, the blood remained unfrozen.

Mark Brickman's production doesn't, alas, convey much beyond a Chekhovian staginess. I see what he has tried to do with Helen Field's Katya. Her whole world is one of self-deception, make-believe - anything but face reality. So, from the moment she appears on stage with that sunny, sailing, good-to-be-alive countenance, you smell delusion. Her physicality is (deliberately, I hope) more obviously contrived, than any of the surrounding characters. But it's all only a step away from operatic caricature. Helen Field is better than that: she has a natural vulnerability that isn't tapped here. Vocally, she is more than ready for this role, brave and vibrant at the top, a true Slavic ring. We should be less distracted by gesture, more focused on her troubled soul. Casting Elizabeth Vaughan - one of our erstwhile lirico spinto stars - as the stony-hearted mother-in-law (Kabanicha) was a terrific idea, her tight-lipped Jean Brodie exterior (and surgical diction) a thin cover for deep frustrations, sexual and otherwise. But I wonder if the scene with the drunken Dikoy (David Gwynne), where he begs chastisement for his sins, is not better left implicit. Kabanicha has unbuttoned the old man's shirt; we have glimpsed the horsewhip. Enough. More is less. An even bigger miscalculation comes with the opera's final moment. Over Katya's lifeless body, Kabanicha offers her hand for Tikhon, her prostrate son, to kiss. But then she smiles. Her indifference to Katya's death is shocking; her obvious delight is not.

Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 26 & 28 Oct (041-332 9000)