Arts Arts & Books

A masterpiece that triumphs over anything that’s done to it

A review of the new Royal Opera production of Janáček’s Káťa Kabanová

Lucky readers of this publication won’t remember how the 1970s looked; but with its bad hair, flared jeans and depressing architecture, it was a look that survived in Eastern Europe long after extinction here in the West. And for that reason, it’s hard to say in which decade Richard Jones’s new Royal Opera production of Janáček’s Káťa Kabanová is set: only that it’s some place in the East where, judging by the awful clothes and urban dullness, communism probably still rules. Worse still, it’s the claustrophobic communism of a small town where unfriendly neighbours peer through half-closed curtains, watching what you’re up to.

This is fair game for an opera that’s originally about a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage in a Russian village where her misery is public and her effort to escape (into the arms of another) ends tragically. But the designs have exceeded their duty in expressing communist-dull lifestyles: this is not a visually alluring show. And although Richard Jones has a particular approach to staging that delivers dullness with redemptive virtuosity, he isn’t on top form here. There’s a sense of someone doing what he always does, but not so sharply or effectively.

That said, it’s still a good night – partly because Káťa is a masterpiece whose music triumphs over anything that’s done to it (including the unfocused sloppiness of the ROH orchestra under Edward Gardner), but also because this production has an outstanding artist in the title role. Amanda Majeski (pictured), an American soprano little-known to British audiences, plays Káťa with the desperate fragility of a broken soul you want to reach out and protect – but also with a searing vocal charge that holds the stage. You scarcely notice anybody else around her when this woman sings. She’s dynamite, on a disturbingly short fuse.

***

Meanwhile, the whole of this year’s programming at Kings Place concert halls is based around women whose ability to hold a stage has been denied them in less inclusive times. It opened with music by Barbara Strozzi, a 17th-century Venetian raised in the shadow of Monteverdi, whose work was also featured. And comparing the two, Monteverdi won hands down with madrigals that were more vividly and brilliantly imagined.

But that’s not to deny Strozzi her place in history. She deserves a hearing. And she got it, with gusto, from the Choir and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conductor Christian Curnyn and soprano Mary Bevan. A line-up like that can do no wrong. But even their best efforts didn’t persuade me that Strozzi is more than a worthy, minor master. The first of many, I fear, at Kings Place between now and next December.