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Janacek - Katya Kabanova

The Europadisc Review

Janacek - Katya Kabanova

Simon Rattle, Amanda Majeski, Katarina Dalayman, Simon O’Neill, Andrew Staples, Mag...

£13.61

The first of Janáček’s great tetralogy of late operas, Katya Kabanova (composed 1920–21) is – even by the composer’s own standards – a work of unique, almost claustrophobic intensity. The story of an unhappily married woman living on the banks of the Volga, who cannot cope with the guilt of the extra-marital affair she has embarked on with a handsome admirer, was taken directly from Alexander Ostrovsky’s 1859 play The Thunderstorm. Janáček – an ardent Russophile – took this work of social criticism and placed the focus firmly on its c... read more

The first of Janáček’s great tetralogy of late operas, Katya Kabanova (composed 1920–21) is – even by the composer’s own standards – a work of unique, almost claustrophobic intensity. The story of an unhappily married woman living on the banks o... read more

Janacek - Katya Kabanova

Janacek - Katya Kabanova

Simon Rattle, Amanda Majeski, Katarina Dalayman, Simon O’Neill, Andrew Staples, Magdalena Kozena, Ladislav Elgr, Pavlo Hunka, Claire Barnett-Jones, Lukas Zeman, London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra

The first of Janáček’s great tetralogy of late operas, Katya Kabanova (composed 1920–21) is – even by the composer’s own standards – a work of unique, almost claustrophobic intensity. The story of an unhappily married woman living on the banks of the Volga, who cannot cope with the guilt of the extra-marital affair she has embarked on with a handsome admirer, was taken directly from Alexander Ostrovsky’s 1859 play The Thunderstorm. Janáček – an ardent Russophile – took this work of social criticism and placed the focus firmly on its central heroine, largely as a result of his infatuation with a woman some four decades his junior, Kamila Štösslová, who soon became muse to some of the most powerful works of his late maturity. At just one hour and forty minutes in duration – scarcely longer than many single acts from Wagner’s music dramas – this is a work that packs a powerful punch.

Of the clutch of recordings of Katya Kabanova that have appeared over the years, relatively few have risen to the work’s undoubted heights. Charles Mackerras’s 1978 Vienna recording – which initiated his award-winning cycle of the great Janáček operas for Decca – has long led the field, with a marvellous cast headed by Elisabeth Söderström expressing all Katya’s fatal fragility. (Mackerras’s 1997 Czech remake with Gabriela Beňačková for Supraphon was a curiously underpowered affair.) Now, over four decades later, comes a new account that once again does the work ample justice.

Taken from performances at London’s Barbican Hall in January 2023, this new Katya is conducted with an unerring feel for the music’s intense lyricism by Simon Rattle at the helm of the London Symphony Orchestra. Although – unlike the Vienna Philharmonic (Mackerras, 1978) – the LSO don’t have a day job as an opera orchestra, their frequent forays into operatic repertoire, as well as the fact that these concerts were given without an interval, give the performance a feeling of remarkable concentration and dramatic tension. The strings in particular have a richness, depth and delicacy which yields nothing to their Austrian counterparts, while the woodwind are characterful and the brass biting without overpowering the singers.

The cast is led by soprano Amanda Majeski in the title role: like Söderström before her, she perfectly captures Katya’s vulnerability, inner torment and fundamentally passionate nature, but without Söderström’s tremulousness. This is a performance of searing emotion, and even in the more relaxed episodes (such as Katya’s reminiscences of her childhood in Act I Scene 2) the listener can feel the undertow of fate. Katya’s Puccinian first appearance in the opening scene may not have quite the magic of the Decca set, but her spiritual disintegration in the opera’s closing scene, her passionate but fleeting reunion with Boris (sung with admirable heroic tone by tenor Simon O’Neill), and her desperate suicide are overwhelming in their power.

For all his evident appeal to Katya, Boris – like so many of Janáček’s male characters – is flawed and rather two-dimensional. Yet O’Neill’s performance is both noble and persuasive, a figure who under different circumstances might have given Katya the happiness she craves. The lovers’ nemesis is Kabanicha, the haranguing mother-in-law from hell, sung with evident relish and power by mezzo-soprano Katarina Dalayman. She relaxes somewhat for her hypocritical tryst with the seedy Dikoj (Boris’s unsympathetic uncle) of Pavlo Hunka, but her final two-faced thanks to neighbours after they have fished Katya’s lifeless body from the Volga is properly chilling, an ending that always sends a shiver down the spine.

As the more carefree couple of Varvara and Kudryash, mezzo Magdalena Kožená and tenor Ladislav Elgr are a perfect complement to the central tragic characters, Kožená less vivacious, more ‘grounded’ than some other impersonators of the role, but still an effective yet sympathetic foil to Katya in their scenes together. The double love duet in Act II (with Katya and Boris offstage, in a sort of reverse perspective of the equivalent Act in Wagner’s Tristan) is especially effective. As Katya’s hapless spouse Tichon, permanently at the mercy of his mother, tenor Andrew Staples presents a more rounded character than is often heard, but his ringing final outburst as his wife’s body is recovered still hits home. All the minor roles are well taken, and the LSO Chorus in Act III play their various parts (assorted neighbours as well as the wordless ‘voice of the Volga’) with great feeling.

Ultimately, however, it is Majeski’s passionate, consistently compelling assumption of the title role, the playing of the orchestra, and Rattle’s sure-footed direction that carry the day here. There is no feel (as with many of Rattle’s earlier recordings) of micro-management here, but a vivid engagement with one of Janáček’s most powerful scores, bringing out all the power of the endlessly transformed, nagging motifs, while simultaneously maintaining dramatic tension, allowing moments of lyricism their head, and keeping in constant sight the narrative flow. Of the two Intermezzi that Janáček wrote to facilitate scene changes, that in Act I is included, while the one in Act II (where it arguably undermines the expressive flow) is not. There’s an appropriately compact but informative booklet note by Nigel Simeone, who also penned the synopsis, as well as full libretto and Paula Kennedy’s fine English translation. Following on from the same team’s Cunning Little Vixen (LSO0850), this continuation of what is now becoming a Janáček opera cycle for our time will be greeted with enthusiasm by all the composer’s many admirers.

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In Praise of Theodora

In Praise of Theodora  21st February 2024

21st February 2024

Surely the most intriguing of all Handel’s oratorios is his antepenultimate work in the genre. Unlike the biblical works on Old Testament subjects with which the composer had enjoyed some of his greatest successes, Theodora is based on the story of an early Christian martyr, persecuted for her beliefs by the Roman authorities during the reign of Diocletian. The story is a bleak one. For her refusal to sacrifice to the Roman gods, Theodora is first ordered to serve as a prostitute, and then – when her beloved Didymus, a Roman convert to Christianity, hatches a rescue plan to free her – condemned to death along with Didymus.

Handel composed the work in the summer of 1749 to a libretto by Thomas Morell (1703–1784), based largely on Robert Boyle’s 1687 novella (reprinted in 1744) The Martyrdom of Theodora and Didymus, although the story goes back to a 4th-century account by... read more

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