Katya Kabanova/The Magic Flute, Hackney Empire, London

Michael Church
Wednesday 18 March 2009 01:00

English Touring Opera, which has just started its annual tour, is celebrating its 30th anniversary. And when you consider the artists who have done time with it (directors Richard Jones, Declan Donellan and Stephen Pimlott, and a dazzling array of singers), you realise what a seminal effect it has had on British operatic life.

By scheduling its new production of Janacek's Katya Kabanova on the day after English National Opera revived David Alden's take on the same composer's Jenufa, ETO provokes illuminating comparisons. Alden's show updates its story to a drab factory in Communist Czechoslovakia: as the drama turns on a religious community's double taboo – the murder of a loved but illegitimate child – the shock effect is partially dissipated. But the drama intensifies, thanks to three singers whose voices are perfectly suited to Janacek's burning lyricism – mezzo Michaela Martens, fellow-American Robert Brubaker, and soprano Amanda Roocroft as the heroine.

Katya Kabanova also turns on the breach of a taboo: Katya, stifled by her marriage to a mother-dominated booby, yields to an adulterous love. Pared down for touring, James Conway's production still maintains the drama at white-hot intensity. Accolades to conductor Michael Rosewell, his small orchestra and a strong cast led by Linda Richardson in the title role.

Tenors Richard Roberts and Michael Bracegirdle strike sparks off each other as the love-lorn Boris and his friend Vanya; Fiona Kimm is a baleful mother-in-law, while Sion Goronwy turns the merchant Dikoy into a malign Giant Haystacks; Colin Judson's hen-pecked Tichon and Jane Harrington's impulsive Varvara are spot on. Katya's loss of sanity has painful authenticity.

ETO's 2009 banker is a new Magic Flute which initially disconcerts – the "monster" from which Tamino flees is a bunch of Nineties ravers – but once under way has immediacy and bite. The stage consists of four gigantic steps leading to a raised sanctum, thus neatly (and cheaply) accommodating the symbolism of the Masonic trials; the lighting is effective, the chorus beautifully drilled. Paula Sides is an outstanding Pamina: her singing alone is worth the price of a ticket.


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