An opera with a length of only three-quarters of an hour must have a libretto that skilfully summarises a plot that extends over a period of several weeks. However, Leoš Janáček’s text for his opera ‘Katja Kabanova’ bumps along a little. This may be due to the fact that he himself cut the text down to a condensate based on a drama by the Russian Alexander Nikolayevich Ostrowski (1823 – 1886), which does not really explain the character of many of the figures in it. Ostrowski published his drama under the title “Thunderstorm” in 1859, which is remarkable in that the writer made the hypocrisy of society with regard to adultery and sexual desire, as well as subjugation in a family system, the main themes of his play. Little known to us, he is one of the greats of Russian literature and exerted a strong influence on Leo Tolstoy.
A scope for interpretation or confusion?
The work had its premiere at the Graz Opera on 18.3.2023, for which the team around director Anika Rutkofsky further complicated the already somewhat lurching plot with some directorial ideas, so that in the end the question arises: How much room for interpretation, how many mythological references, how many plot reinterpretations can a play tolerate in order to remain comprehensible? As it turns out, great efforts sometimes do not always lead to the goal.
Which brings the criticism to its core. The director places the action in an ecclesiastical setting, more precisely in the interior of an Orthodox village church. Dikoj, (Wilfried Zelinka), who in Ostrowski and Janáček was still identified as a merchant, becomes the priest of the parish, his nephew Boris, entrusted to his care, his novice. (Arnold Rutkofski) The idea of placing the story in an Orthodox religious context pushes the actual message that every society is hypocritical and seeks scapegoats far away from the Graz audience. Rather, from the red plush chair of the opera, this constellation tempts one to point the finger at a system that “doesn’t happen that way in our country”.
In the very first minutes after the curtain rises, one witnesses a man on a ladder wiping the communist crescent symbol off a church window, which will later be replaced by an image of the Virgin Mary. This clarifies the time horizon in which the drama takes place. We are apparently shortly after the collapse of the USSR. In front of the interior of the church is a blue-tiled wall with an entrance familiar from swimming pools. In the second act, this swimming pool will be extended by a small room that will serve as a lovers’ ladder. The programme booklet explains: “Eleni Konstantatou’s stage space – a swimming pool church – makes the change of system architecturally visible: the St. Peter’s Church of a Protestant parish near Nevsky Prospekt, which was converted into a swimming pool under communism, is the inspiration for this. Today, mass is celebrated again on the covered pool, with the altar stone still reminiscent of the diving board.”
The reduction of the play’s message through the orthodox religious framework
The mendacity of society that Ostrowski exposed in his drama is downgraded in the Graz opera version to a bigotry in which there is no room for deep religious enlightenment or public confession of one’s fallibility.
Katja Kabanova (Marjukka Tepponen), the young wife of Tikhon (Matthias Koziorowski) is entirely under the curatorship of her despotic mother-in-law, who will not let her son off his motherly leash. When he has to leave the village for a fortnight, his wife suspects disaster. She senses that her hitherto unfulfilled sexuality will be the occasion for a marriage betrayal. And indeed, it only takes a few hours before she gives herself to Boris, Dikoj’s nephew, who until then could only adore her from afar.
In the scene in which the two young people find their way to each other, the stage is filled with all kinds of parallel mating variations. Later, the costumes will show that members of the religious community, who constantly cross themselves in church, obviously only know morality from hearsay.
Janáček’s outstanding music as a lifeline
As convoluted as the libretto and the staging themselves may appear, they are soothingly contrasted by the music of Leoš Janáček with the conducting of Roland Kluttig. Next to fiery sounds with hard and deep winds that announce disaster, there are highly lyrical passages that allow us to dive deep into various states of mind. Katja Kabanova herself is endowed with several wonderful arias, which Tepponen interprets with increasing brilliance as the performance progresses. Her acting portrayal of this young woman should also be highlighted. Every emotion, every event she reports comes across authentically to the audience. The folk song motifs that the composer has assigned to the character of Kudryash (Mario Lerchenberger) are also wonderful to listen to. The womaniser role he embodies in Graz pushes these heartfelt melodies into the drawer of a cold-blooded, savvy seducer, which means they can only be perceived as sweet at first.
In Janáček’s compositional technique, one can often easily understand the sound of individual words performed and entire movements. For example, the role of Katja’s mother-in-law (Iris Vermillion) has some hard and edgy interjections, in which the sentence “Mankind wants to be deceived” is also uttered. On the other hand, small cascades of melody that sway up and down make those birds audible that Katja sings about when she thinks about how much she would like to be free. However, they appear once more – shortly before the young woman, outcast from society, chooses suicide. The fact that Katja’s husband Tichon also falls victim to social lynch law in the end, because he comes out as homosexual in the Graz version, is also a directorial idea by Anika Rutkofsky.
Marie Sturminger’s costume potpourri reveals a rural society that has none of the chic of Moscow’s upper crust. Only the pompous habit of the Popen and the dazzling white Sunday staffage of Kabanicha, the wicked mother-in-law, convey glamour and thus at the same time her claim to authority.
An excellent ensemble makes for a successful evening
Musically, the ensemble performs extremely uniformly at a high level. There are no outliers downwards, which is very good for the performance. In addition to those already mentioned, Mareike Jankowski as the sister-in-law and Martin Fournier in the role of Kuligin should be singled out here. It is the performance of the singers and also the orchestra that make the evening in the Graz Opera an experience. Even if the staging itself can be hotly debated.
This article was automatically translated with deepl.com