When Trevor Nunn was artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, his wish-list of works he wanted the company to perform included The Storm by the 19th-century Russian playwright Alexander Ostrovsky. For one reason or another he didn't get his wish, although the company has since staged the play. Now Nunn finds himself staging the first Royal Opera House production of Katya Kabanova, the opera which Leos Janacek derived from Ostrovsky's play. Although Nunn's Glyndebourne production of Porgy and Bess was seen at Covent Garden in 1992, Katya is the first staging he has created for the house.
As Nunn recalls: 'The house, in particular Bernard Haitink, asked me to come in and talk about doing something. When I suggested Katya. Bernard fastened on to that of all the options, so I went away and re-read Ostrovsky's play a couple of times, and read the opera's libretto many times. The play is extraordinary, and I was fascinated by the extent to which Janacek does set the play. Of course there are changes of emphasis, divergences, but they are not great.'
It's no surprise that Nunn should be drawn to a work with such a clear antecedent in the spoken theatre. Katya will be the fifth opera Nunn has directed, after Porgy and Bess, Britten's Peter Grimes, and Mozart's Idomeneo and Cos fan tutte. He is selective when it comes to opera: 'I don't feel particularly qualified. I'm not a musician, I don't read music very comfortably, and I certainly can't read an orchestral score. It's quite important for there to be particular dramatic ingredients that require something of my training in classical theatre and in the various European theatrical traditions. There are a lot of wonderful pieces that I love to go and see, but while I'm watching, I know that I really don't have anything to offer.'
Nunn is aware of the risks of trying to impose theatrical traditions that may be inimical to opera: 'A lot of the operas which I wouldn't attempt are unappealing because they have an inertness, no possibility of fluid action or of responding to the structure in an alive way. The operas I have done - Porgy is a good case in point - are completely accessible to someone like me. Porgy concerns a community which must be delineated precisely, one needs to focus and hold in balance a set of conflictlng stories. That very much relates to the work I did in Shakespeare at Stratford and in adapting 19th-century novels of one kind or another. In the case of Peter Grimes, I was born in Suffolk, I know that coastline, I met Britten because of a Suffolk connection. I did feel in some way authoritative about the piece and the community it portrays, about a kind of puritanism, the public and private stances which Britten was writing about, and about its evocation of place, climate and, most of all, the sea.'
Is there a pattern emerging here? The sea, and a storm, are pivotal in both Grimes and Idomeneo while, in Katya, Janacek draws strong musical pictures both of the storm that gave Ostrovsky his title and of the Volga that finally sweeps Katya to her death. The link is not entirely whimsical, for these are exactly the strong, elemental forces that opera evokes, energising dramas that might otherwise seem 'inert'.
As Nunn says: 'I've wanted things to be expressed more through bold visual statements than through naturalistic social realism. I'm going for truthfulness, recognisable human behaviour, but what I'm trying to respond to is the central metaphor, the storm that begins to lour, gather in ferocity and finally burst, leaving destruction in its wake. That's the shape and structure of it, musically as well as scenically. It's about people at the epicentre of a storm in nature as well as a storm in a particular group, and in Katya's mind. Janacek brings it to that point, just as Ostrovsky does.'
Nunn's cast is not the glittery, next-stop-the-recording-studio confection of so many international opera house productions, but a mostly young, utterly committed set of first-rate singer-actors: 'Eva Randova has played Kabanicha (Katya's domineering mother-in-law) before, but a long time ago. Nobody else in the company has sung the opera before. I didn't get any sense of someone saying, 'What I want to do is what I did last time.' It must be nightmarish for people who know a work inside-out to work with a director who doesn't. We have been very confessional with one another. The talk has been a very satisfying dialogue, not me saying, 'What you are to do is this. Now do it.' It's been wonderful to have the singers say things like, 'When I come round that corner, can he stay looking at me just a little bit longer? Can his cue be organised in a different way so that we can have a longer person-to-person contact?' '
For Nunn, it has been particularly exciting to work with Elena Prokina, the young Russian soprano who is making her Covent Garden debut as Katya: 'Elena started her training at the Kirov as part of the theatre school. What she wanted to be was an actress, and one of the plays she studied was The Storm. Her first contact with Katya was as an acting challenge, so she has a great knowledge of the play, and of its meaning to a Russian audience, as well as of the score, and what changes in significance between the opera and the play. At one rehearsal, when Elena wasn't there - it's the scene where people are leaving church - I wanted to remind people that there was a sort of sanctimony, the possibility of hypocrisy, and I thrust prayer-books in their hands. When Elena came to the next rehearsal, she said, 'That's all very well, but we don't have prayer-books in Russia.' So we gave up the prayer-books.'
The last new Janacek production at Covent Garden was William Dudley's staging of The Cunning Little Vixen, which the conductor, Simon Rattle, insisted on performing in English (although Bernard Haitink later conducted it in Czech). In the case of Katya, Nunn thinks the original language is essential: 'It's odd for me to disagree with Simon, but there's a first time for everything. There have been times over the past few weeks when, unable to find my place precisely in the score, unable to speak Czech, and unable to speak Russian to Elena Prokina, I've felt that I've had both hands tied behind my back, my feet bound together and I've been blindfolded too. But it's clear to me that the Czech is so vital to Janacek as a basis for his speech-melody. Of course there is an experience in translation, but whatever the cleverness of the translation, I'm not sure how much detail would come through the quite heavy musical forces. Just where Janacek wants syllables to hurry, you're trying to find syllables to fit; you're going to have the verb where he has the noun, the noun where he has the verb. You're going to get into a pickle.
'I do feel strongly, though, that what appears in the surtitles should be sufficiently accurate in detail. I don't like a generalised translation into opera-ese which leads you to believe that what you are watching is not about specific feelings and responses, that the opera doesn't relate to the lives we lead.'
'Katya Kabanova' opens tomorrow, 7.30pm Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London WC2 (071-240 1911 / 1066) and continues in rep to 25 March
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