Friday 7 August 2009

Not a tidy tragedy

Kat’a Kabanova, Opera Holland Park, London

It’s rare, but when opera gets it right, everything - music, visuals, words and acting – comes together and carries you through the story from start to finish, thoughts and feelings together. The problem is, when it does happen it’s too much to take in. So I left Holland Park wanting to hear all the music again in a darkened room, and not miss anything.

Starting in daylight and ending in darkness is inevitable when your auditorium is a tent. But it works well for Janacek’s piece, which begins with a young engineer, Kudrjas, singing joyfully beside the river Volga about how much joy it gives him. But cheerful Lenin lookalike Kudrjas is soon interrupted by an ugly scene between old man Dikoj and his young nephew Boris, followed by a convenient outpouring of Boris’s troubles: an orphan, he has to be nice to his uncle or he’ll inherit nothing and nor will his sister. And on top of everything else, he’s fallen in love with a married woman. Here she comes now.

And, though all that passes between Boris and Kat’a is a look, it has the intensity of repressed and forbidden feeling. From here on the impetuous, emotional Kat’a is on a road to disaster, as her free spirit batters itself against her oppressive mother-in-law Kabanicha and the backing of polite society. The whole stage is a narrow cross of walkways between open water and reeds. The tight circle of the house has wire mesh walls, more of a cage than a refuge. So there’s no room to avoid meeting somebody, just one crossroads at which to decide your course. When Kat’a and Boris finally, inevitably, pursue their love affair, they simply step off the walkway into the blue.

In fact, this production begins with our first glimpse of Kat’a, like a caged animal in the wire-mesh ring of her home, hemmed in and then hunted out by the chorus of respectable citizens over the overture. I’m not sure this was necessary. It is opera, after all, so surely nobody was expecting a happy ending for our eponymous heroine? The atmosphere of dread in the music would have been enough.

Janacek wrote this opera a few years after the Russian Revolution of 1917, eyeing it in excitement from newly independent Czechoslovakia, but it is based on an earlier play by the Russian Ostrovsky. So its world is already a past where husbands give their wives strict instructions not to look out of the window while they’re away on business, and religion is the only outlet for a girl’s longing to transcend her situation. Kat’a’s downfall is not that she strays from a stultifying marriage, but that her sense of sin drives her to a public confession.

But there is also light. As it turns out, it’s not just love of the Volga that makes Kudrjas so joyful. He’s been meeting Vavara, Kat’a’s young sister-in-law, on the sly. They court beside the river using fragments of folk songs, all simple exuberance and not-so-innocent pleasure. It’s a contrast with the bittersweet lyricism of Kat’a and Boris. And comedy runs through the production, from the longsuffering servant’s eloquent face to Kudrjas’ vain attempts to explain lightning and lightning conductors to the people sheltering in church from the storm. Religion in this opera is superstitious as well as repressive.

Getting on for a century old, this piece feels very modern. Partly because the music is neither dusty nor ostentatiously avant-garde, so it hasn’t dated. Partly, too, because it is a classically naturalistic work, in which the details of character and setting show a specific world which is not timeless, but of its time. And again, that means it doesn’t date as quickly as a piece with less sense of history. But it’s also because the ending is not a tidy tragedy. After Kat’a has confessed all and run off into the storm, it’s clearly her job to die and thus atone for her infidelity, them’s the rules from Tristan and Isolde to Alfred Hitchcock. But instead of jumping straight into the river, she gives husband Tichon time to go looking for her and sing about how he still loves her. Then Kudrjas and Vavara meet and decide to run away and start a new life in Moscow, escaping Kabanicha’s tyranny. And as Kat’a finally stands by the water, Boris comes to find her. His uncle is sending him away to Siberia – but he’s a free agent, why doesn’t Kat’a come with him?

Why not indeed? She refuses him, fills her pocket with stones, and fulfils the tragic ending she’s foreseen for herself from the start. But it’s not clear at all that she had no choice. It’s a repressive, backward, spirit-smothering society, but there are possibilities of escape, if you have it in you to take them.

Till 7 August 2009


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