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S & H International Opera Review

Villains and Victims II: Katya Kabanova at Finnish National Opera 30th December 2003 (BK)


I’m tempted to describe this new production of Katya Kabanova as ‘very nearly perfect but damp.’ The near perfection came about because of Jirí Belohlávek’s extraordinary command of the score and because of a starry cast that included Karita Mattila. The production was damp though because producer / director Kari Heiskanen and set designer Markku Hakari had flooded most of the FNO stage for all three acts, doubtless to symbolise the power of feminine sexuality in the drama. It worked well enough: few divas look good in gum-boots I suspect, but Mattila certainly does.

Karita Mattila Photographer: Sakari Viika

It is very well-known that Janácek’s adaptation of A N Ostrovsky’s play The Thunderstorm was influenced considerably by his infatuation with Kamila Stösslová, a happily married woman thirty eight years his junior. Katya’s overpowering feeling for Boris in the opera was almost certainly modelled on the composer’s perception of Kamila’s relationship with her husband, which Janácek called ‘a great, measureless love.’ With Kamila always on his mind while he was completing the opera, Janácek wrote on the title page of the score that he gave to her, that his sixth opera was ‘one of my most tender works.’

Jirí Belohlávek’s reading of the work brought out every nuance of this tenderness and was to my mind revelatory. If Oramo had managed to combine a sustained sense of savagery with beautiful sound during the previous evening’s performance of Peter Grimes, then Belohlávek’s achievement was to accent beauty even during the most harrowing moments in this parallel tale of bigoted oppression. Though, sadly, I missed the Glyndebourne production of Tristan and Isolde in the summer, it was easy to see why Belohlávek’s interpretation there received the acclaim that it did.

The problem with writing about Karita Mattila is to choose which superlatives to leave out. Never less than vocally radiant, tender and passionate by turns, guilt ridden to the point of suicide and yet somehow still defiant even in the act of self-destruction, Mattila as Katya is probably one of the greatest interpreters of the role ever. She looks wonderful too.

None of this though is to under-rate the singing of Lilli Paasikivi as Varvara or of Hungarian mezzo Livia Budia as the Kabanicha. Paasikivi particularly gave a stunning performance with superb vocal characterisation of the defiant foster-child and Budia was every inch the Mother-in-Law from Hell. Excellent performances both, and certainly as near as makes no difference to the ‘sparkling soprano star’ (kirkkaimmista sopraanotähdistä) ranking afforded to Mattila in the evening’s programme notes.

The ‘very nearly perfect’ rating for this performance comes about because although Jyrki Anttila as Boris, Kalevi Olli (Dikoy) and Ari Grönthal (Vanya) were all on good form (with Anttila particularly singing much more powerfully and tunefully than when I heard him at the Lahti Sibelius Festival in September,) Lassi Virtanen as Tikhon was less satisfying. To be fair however, this judgment had more to do with Virtanen’s acting than with his singing. He overdid the ‘drunk’ aspects of the role rather much, so that it was difficult to know whether characterisation or caricature were the intention: an alarming orange wig was no help either.

Lassi Virtanen, Karita Mattila Photographer: Sakari Viika

Markku Hakari’s sets and Marja Uusitalo’s period costumes were simple and effective and Kimmo Ruskela provided spectacular lighting. The symbolism of the flooded stage has been mentioned already but two other allusions were highly relevant to the drama. During the orchestral prelude a motionless woman was wrapped slowly in a veil or winding sheet and was carried off into darkness by two dark male figures. And after Katya’s suicide, the cast was caught in a seemingly endless round - dance in front of a flaming orange and red back-drop, like Paolo and Francesca da Rimini in Dante’s outermost circle of hell. Denial of the true self may well be the real sin.

Bill Kenny

Production Details

Conductor: Jirí Belohlávek
Direction: Kari Heiskanen
Set Designs: Markku Hakari
Costumes: Marja Uusitalo
Lighting: Kimmo Ruskela


Katya : Karita Mattila
Marfa Kabanová (Kabanicha) : Livia Budai
Tikhon: Lassi Virtanen
Boris: Jyrki Anttila
Dikoy: Kalevi Olli
Vanya: Ari Grönthal
Varvara: Lilli Paasikivi
Kuligin: Ari Hosio
Glaša: Kaisa Hanula
Fekluša: Erja Wimeri

Wanderer: Pekka Kuukka
Woman: Irene Parkkinen

Chorus and Orchestra of Finnish National Opera.



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