There’s a woman at the heart of nearly all Leos Janacek’s operas. Like Hitchcock’s women they tend to end up dead. Unlike Hitchcock, though, Janacek is inclined to blame not his flawed heroines but those around them.
There are two Janacek operas playing in London at the moment, the tragedy of Katya Kabanova and the comedy of Vixen Sharp-ears. Janacek composed them almost simultaneously in the 1920s, but their worlds look very different.
Katya is a married woman in a fiercely repressive society, the limits of her life embodied by the mother-in-law who dominates both son and daughter-in-law. But before we first see her, arriving back from church with the family, we meet the young teacher Kudriash, singing with carefree joy about the River Volga. Alfie Boe’s Kudriash is so full of vitality, it almost doesn’t matter that the river in David Alden’s production is always offstage, unseen at the rear of the raked wooden stage.
Next, we meet Boris, the put-upon nephew of Dikoy, forced into childlike dependency in his uncle’s house, but in love with a married woman. And here she comes – Katya, of course. He gazes at her without speaking, but as he does the black cloth that closes in the back of the stage rises, the pale grey backdrop lightens the stage, just a little. Then he runs off without speaking to her.
In this production, Katya is literally closed in most of the time, the whitewashed wall brought downstage to hem her – and us – in. Stark lighting throws expressionist shadows, playing about with scale so little Katya is dominated by the shadow chair and by an outsize silhouette of Varvara, her husband’s foster-sister. It’s a sparse setting for the powerful emotion of the music.
When the scene moves outside the household to the riverside walk, Kudriash and Varvara carry on their courtship with folk tunes and lively dancing. Anna Grevelius as Varvara is a girlish mix of coltish energy and feminine allure. And, tentatively, fearfully, Katya and Boris creep out to meet in person at last. Contrasted against the carefree young lovers, their movements are stilted and stiff. Stuart Skelton and Susan Bickley put their emotion into the sung lines, as their bodies move slowly, tensely, in straight lines. Then they run, with almost clumsy haste, upstage to the river. As Kudriash and Varvara flirt and canoodle, the intensity of Katya and Boris’s love is heard in fragments of passionate song.
At times, the stylisation of the staging seems too much, too evidently a directorial decision and not an impetus from the characters. Yes, Katya and Boris are repressed, but that’s clear from the way they hold themselves, scarcely daring to look at each other. Skelton is so stodgy, in his big overcoat and moustache, that the couple next to me whispered ‘What does she see in Boris?’ as the curtain fell on Act II. But that makes it all the more touching. Unlike the young lovers with all the possibilities of their lives ahead of them, this Boris and Katya are mature adults, slowed down by the accretions of life and the responsibilities of family. Their only taste of freedom is this love.
The real tragedy of Katya Kabanova, at least to modern eyes, is that it needn’t be one. If only Tichon, Katya’s husband, had the backbone to stand up to his mother, Katya might not be so unhappy. If Katya herself were not so guilt-stricken by her religious faith, she might have carried on and had a secret affair like others in her hypocritical social milieu. If only Boris were not such a coward, he might have taken her away with him.
But in this boxed-in world of walls and doors, it’s hard to imagine that there are any choices for any of them. The river is never seen. The nearest we come to the unbounded nature that Kudriash sings about is the hints of birdsong as Katya imagines the flowers that will grow on her grave. It’s a harsh life, with odd glimpses of joy and freedom, and all the longing and sadness of it is sung through Janacek’s lyrical score.
Whereas the Cunning Little Vixen’s world is the forest, huge and full of mysterious, irrepressible life. This 1990 production, directed by Bill Bryden and designed by William Dudley, has the forest in constant motion from the start, a chorus of children as insects, mice and rabbits playing among the undergrowth, and aerialists drifting slowly across between the vast circles of the set.
This opera makes plenty of room for the visual, with long atmospheric interludes for dances, or simply character vignettes. It’s almost as if the forest itself were a character. Cunning Little Vixen has a reputation for being child-friendly, which seems misplaced as soon as the Forester comes on and reminiscing about courting his wife. As a story about a fox suggests, it includes a fair amount of mating and killing. Perhaps the music is more accessible to a young audience. Though often impressionistic and free-form, it also uses both conversational rhythms that allow the dialogue to be heard and understood, and tuneful songs.
If nature in Katya Kabanova is sweet freedom, always out of reach, here it is everywhere in all its amoral power. The eponymous little Vixen, caught by the sleepy Forester and taken home as a plaything for his children, never yields to domestication. Even when tied up for biting a tormenting child, her spirit is swinging on a trapeze beneath the moon.
Sung by Emma Matthews, the vixen is full of dangerous charm and, indeed, cunning. Still tied up, she tries to talk the Forester’s hens into revolting against the rooster who oppresses them. When this fails, she declares herself disgusted with their lack of feminist spirit, and pretends to kill herself. Goaded into approaching her, the rooster is despatched, followed by all the hens, and the vixen escapes.
There’s a curious ambiguity of tone between the human and animal characters here. After the Forester has spent the evening drinking with his friends, he goes off into the forest with hopes of shooting the cheeky vixen who killed his hens. But his companions, coming across her first, seem to confuse her with the women of their own lives. Sometimes it seems the line between humans and animals gets rather smudged.
Then the vixen is herself courted by the Fox (impressively sung on opening night by Elisabeth Meister due to Emma Bell’s sudden illness) in a delightfully gauche and straightforward manner. ‘Do you like rabbits?’ ‘I love rabbits!”. And in no time at all, they return from the undergrowth, she has to whisper in his ear what happens next, and the animals of the woods gather for a solemn marriage with wordless chorus singing from the boxes.
But this is no romanticisation of nature. The love of Fox and Vixen, a sensual, joyous love, brings them a tribe of cubs. To feed the cubs, Vixen ruthlessly despatches a little rabbit. She’s too clever for the Forester’s clumsy attempt to trap her, but she’s too cocky as well. When – SPOILER ALERT – she falls after a single shot from the hunter Harasta’s gun, the silence is broken by the distraught sobbing of a single child in the audience. As I say, perhaps not THAT suitable for children.
Normally, the tragic death of the heroine means it’s time to wind up the opera and go to the bar. But the Forester was in the forest before he caught the vixen cub, and he’s still here. Only now the drinking in the strange little bar is a melancholy affair, musing on failed loves and cooling passions. The vixen spirit may have sharp teeth, but when she’s gone the world is a greyer place.
But spring comes around again. The animals play among the trees as they did at the start. The power of the full orchestra carries us with the tide of returning life. A individual may get weary and die, but the forest goes on undiminished. And though Sharp-ears is dead, her cubs will take her place.
It’s strange to think that this production is twenty years old, made around the time the Iron Curtain was falling. It seems so fresh and timeless, so full of optimism and rude cheerfulness, true to the score and the libretto. And it’s a rare pleasure to see an opera that feels no need to make knowing allusions to the preoccupations of our age.
It’s quite possible, of course, that it’s full of knowing references to the preoccupations of twenty years ago, but we don’t recognise them. If that’s the case, it’s a good argument for returning to the best works of the past, precisely to give us room to breathe, to find our own resonances and connections with today.
Katya Kabanova is at the English National Opera till 27 March 2010
The Cunning Little Vixen is at the Royal Opera House till 1 April 2010