Review: OPERA ABROAD Janacek's Katya Kabanova Rudolfinum, Prague

In 1947, Charles Mackerras, then a young student new to Prague, heard a performance in the Czech capital of Janacek's Katya Kabanova that so moved him that, when he came to London the following year, he set about persuading the then Sadler's Wells Opera Company to mount Janacek's stage works. Three decades later, it was Katya again with which the Australian conductor launched his ground-breaking series of Janacek opera recordings (on Decca) with the Vienna Philharmonic.

Nowadays, Mackerras is pre-eminent among Janacek interpreters - a fact warmly acknowledged last weekend by the audience in Prague's Rudolfinum, where Sir Charles conducted Katya in a concert performance linked to recording sessions with the Czech Philharmonic.

This was the first complete opera Mackerras had conducted since tearing a tendon in his baton arm last year, and if that arm sometimes moved as if on a system of pulleys, his command and support of soloists and orchestra remained absolute.

While Czech orchestras have no special title to Janacek's music, there was on this occasion a certain cragginess in the playing that may or may not be innately Czech, but which certainly suits the piece. The hall's sturdy reverberation particularly helped the lower strings to give good weight, and the folkish sections of the score came across as neurotic and edgy, not at all folksy.

The Rudolfinum has an organ loft above the orchestra platform, which Mackerras used as his "stage", having his singers enter and exit, providing them with a dramatic space. That space was amply filled by the Katya, Gabriela Benackova, who, leaning for support on a rail, looked ready at any moment to plunge into the seething tumult below, just as Katya finally throws herself into the River Volga. Benackova's score remained unread on its stand, although she sometimes turned the pages distractedly, like Lady Macbeth washing her hands. The richness in the voice gave the character real depth, although, as Katya began to long for death, the soprano's tone showed small signs of fraying - but, by that time, so does Katya's grasp on life.

Dominant Benackova may have been but she had strong support. The mezzo- soprano Dagmar Peckova was to have sung Varvara in Covent Garden's revival of Katya next month, but the birth of a baby a month ago led to her withdrawal. Here, though, she was in good voice, lending the character an air of heedless impetuosity, a stark contrast to Katya's descent.

Ludek Vele took the part of the merchant Dikoj to the very edge of caricature, while Peter Straka's Boris had the necessary tenor ardour, supported by a baritonal depth that hinted at melancholy.

But the heart of the opera is the battle between Katya and the Kabanicha, a mother-in-law from Les Dawson's worst nightmares. Eva Randova (who will be at Covent Garden in May) invested the part with just a hint of raw corruption. There was an almost palpable tension as Katya and the Kabanicha stared each other out across the screaming abyss of the orchestra, and the storm crackling between the two was as electric as the orchestral storm that engulfs the opera in Act 3. Suspended high above the stage seemed absolutely the right place for this Katya Kabanova to be.

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