Review: Opera North’s Katya Kabanova

Georgie Burgess reviews Opera North’s production of Katya Kabanova, on at the Leeds Grand on select dates until the 27th of February.

Here I was, back again to see my second opera and it was a cold, dark night, fitting for what we were about to witness.

Katya Kabanova is one of Czech composer Leoš Janácek’s later operas, with its first performance playing in 1921. Set in a Russian town in the mid-1800s, Katya is a woman unhappy in her marriage; her husband Tichon is pushed around by his cruel mother Kabanicha and she longs to be free. But the temptation is too much and Katya’s actions have major consequences. Part of Opera North’s 2018/19 season, this was completely different from what I have seen previously. Only an hour and three quarters long, the piece is played without an interval and sung in English which, for myself was surprisingly more difficult to adapt to than Italian.

The production contained some strong performances and Stephanie Corley’s Katya was emotional and moving with her soprano matching Katya’s slightly unhinged disposition. Alexander Sprague and Katie Bray (as Kudyrash and Vavara respectively) play their youthful love for each other convincingly and at times I was more invested in their story than Katya and Boris’. Heather Shipp was brilliant as Katya’s villainous mother-in-law and the cold smugness in her eyes during the finale was nothing if not disturbing.

Hildegard Bechtler’s set was suitably dark and bleak with harsh line and edges, trapping Katya physically as well as emotionally. It contained subtle references to nature, with glimpses of trees and birds and the freedom Katya craves which I feel could have been played on more strongly. Bechtler’s costumes matched this bleak outlook with only Katya and Vavara dressed in anything other than black or dark grey; Katya’s fiery red hair paired with her green dress portrayed her as something not meant for this world. There were some strangely long scene changes, which detracted slightly from the action but aside from this, the design effectively encapsulated Katya’s world as she sees it, dark and cruel.

Sian Edwards conducted expertly from the pit giving life to Janácek’s music which added an element of beauty to an often desperate mood. I would recommend Katya Kabanova if you are after a short foray into opera; it was an enjoyable piece with a good composition, building to a dramatic finale.  

Georgie Burgess

Images Courtesy of Opera North/Jane Hobson