OPERA / True colours: Edward Seckerson on Janacek's Katya Kabanova

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The Independent Culture
Glyndebourne Touring Opera's first visit to the capital will leave us with at least one lasting impression: the indelible colours of Nikolaus Lehnhoff's production of Janacek's Katya Kabanova. When it was new (1988) the colours were much discussed. Lehnhoff and his designer Tobias Hoheisel had boldly striven for a two-dimensional look to their show - primary and secondary colours only. The surface was pure child-like fancy, pop-up picture-book naivety with corn-yellow hillocks meeting the bluest of skies, turning red through pink at night as passions rose, sulphurous or black when seen against the purplish swirl of the river - Katya's private world, the stuff of folk-tales and impossible dreams. Janacek's music tells a similar story: his colours are primary too.

The colours have not been dimmed. But just as the complex psychology of Janacek's score happens between the notes, so the potency of Lehnhoff's staging - the third dimension - is ultimately down to the skills of his performers. He doesn't crowd them, he doesn't hamper them - he gives them space and the will to fill it. But they are the more vulnerable for his generosity, and for all the eagerness and commitment of this talented young company, something wasn't quite connecting. On a good night this opera touches nerve-endings you never knew existed.

Most of the performances here were at the very least on the right track. Susan Bullock's Katya may still have some way to go, but she deserved her success. Her singing is strong and open-hearted, full of persuasion and promise. Lehnhoff sets her up beautifully. As the fateful drumming and muted trombones of Janacek's prelude cast the first shadows, we see her backing away from the stifling confines of her domestic hell: weak husband, tyrannical mother- in-law. Freedom exists only in her dreams now. Romance, too. There she stands on the brow of the hill, silhouetted against the dawn sky, her long hair blowing in the wind. But it's fear - fear of reality, fear that dreams can actually come true that is central to Katya's character. Vocally, Bullock caught well the sudden anxieties, the irrational descents from rapture to paranoia - and introspection. Her robust lyric soprano is capable of enthralling pianissimi. She has the stillness in her voice but not yet in her body. In the great final scene Lehnhoff should really have taken the 'mad Ophelia' acting in hand. Katya has the stage, nothing must distract us from her 'unspeakable desolation', her guilt. Eiddwen Harrhy's incisively sung Kabanicha faced a different kind of problem, being younger and smarter, more of the 'black widow' than we are accustomed to in this role. Somehow her stillness didn't make for strength. She was not the lowering presence she needs to be. Except when wielding the walking cane over a prostrate Dikoy (Roger Bryson) - a scene which ends just in time to let our imagination run riot. Short, sharp, incriminating - typical Janacek.

Honourable mentions are in order for Christian Papis's vigorous Boris, and for Adele Paxton and Timothy Robinson as the young lovers Vavara and Vanya, the latter especially for his sweet-sounding balalaika folk song. The conductor, David Angus, failed to deliver only once at the big emotional-release clinching Act 2. But this wasn't a high-risk reading (except on occasions in the orchestra); the way to the shattering final scene was straight and sure. Lehnhoff's denouement is unforgettable. Katya's lifeless body is laid at Kabanicha's feet. But now the stage empties and we alone bear witness to her cursory vote of thanks to 'friends and neighbours'. With that, she simply walks away. Katya is left - discarded. Even Janacek would have been stunned by the economy.