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Janacek,  Katia Kabanova: Soloists,  Orquesta y Coro de la Sinfónica de Madrid. Conductor: Jiri Belohlavek. Teatro Real de Madrid. 2 & 4.12.2008. (JMI)

Production from De Vlaamse Opera.

Direction: Robert Carsen.
Sets and Costumes: Patrick Kinmonth.
Lighting: Robert Carsen and Peter Van Praet.


Katia Kabanova: Karita Mattila/Andrea Dankova.
Boris: Miroslav Dvorsky/ Pär Lindskog.
Kabanicha: Julia Juon.
Varvara: Natasha Petrinsky.
Dikoj: Oleg Bryak.
Tichon: Guy de Mey.
Kudriach. Gordon Gietz

Karita Mattila as Katia

A few days back, in my review on The Turn of the Screw in Bordeaux, I mentioned the big change that has taken place during the last few years with regard to Britten operas. Today, and talking about Janacek’s Katia Kabanova this time, I shall  have to repeat myself. This great  Czech composer was almost unknown some 30 years ago in Spain  and his works were very rarely programmed in opera houses. Today the situation is quite different and I must say that every time I attend an opera by Britten or Janacek, I have to report a  a big success - st least this is what has been happening in Spain time and time again. How could anyone  forget the Jenufa in Bilbao and Oviedo or The  Makropulos Case from the Teatro Real  last season! Now this outstanding performance of Katia Kabanova has to  be added to the list of Janacek’s Spanish triumphs.

Katia Kabanova is still a comparative rarity here, although I am sure that the situation will change very shortly. In fact,  its premiere in this country  did not take place  until 1973,  more than 50 years after its first ever performance in Brno. In Madrid it has only been  performed once, back in 1975, and then only with the  Prague National Theater visiting the city. Until now I considered this opera to be  of a lesser quality than Jenufa, but clearly I must recognize that it is only when an opera is seen and  heard in  good  conditions, that one can draw  definitive conclusions about it. So far I have been unlucky with Kabanova,  even though  my experience of it has always been at very prestigious theatres. But here, at long last, Katia’s redemption has arrived.

Robert Carsen is one of the most prestigious stage directors at the present time. Not all of  his work is excellent, but his hand is always distinctive and this time his direction was among the best he  has ever delivered -  allowing  that  he has already  done  much high quality work  already. The production comes from De  Vlaamse Opera, having been  premiered in Antwerp in February 2004. Later, the production travelled to La Scala and this last spring appeared in Cologne. Carsen plays with two key elements in this production, the river Volga and the misfortune of the protagonist. To do that he presents a bare stage covered with water, with scene changes done by 20 “other Katias” who move wooden pallets around to create different atmospheres. Add to this,  two solid panels on the sides and one at the back of the stage, in which the movement of water is reflected, and that’s it. Given that the first part of a the production works very well and that the second half is worth seeing, the. lighting is probably the best thing I have seen on stage in a long time. It is a perfect example of how to offer a low cost production, full of imagination and with a magnificent stage direction. My only complain is the fact that Carsen changes the conclusion of the scene between the  Kabanicha and Dikoj. According to Janacek’s libretto, she rejects his approaches, while Carsen decides that it makes more sense that Kabanicha accepts him with passion. Why?

The second important element in this  representation was  the Jiri Belohlavek’s musical direction. He is  one of the most esteemed Czech conductors just now, if not the best  of all of them. His reading was magnificent. Nothing was lacking:  everything written in the music was there in fact, tension, strength, lyricism, inspiration. The
Teatro Real Orchestra felt like a new one, giving one of their best performances in years.  How orchestras can change with an expert conductor!

The third element responsible for the success of the production  was the protagonist, Katia sung by  Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, who already has a long experience in the character but who was making her debut at the Teatro Real. Her interpretation  had all the required intensity, from the young dreamer at the opera’s outset to the tormented Katia at  the end. She owned the character and the stage at every turn and it is difficult to conceive of  this opera without her. She is a truly great singer and an extraordinary actress.

In the second cast Katia was  Andrea Dankova, who had sung Micaela here some nine years ago. She had the most serious handicap imaginable having  to be compared with  Karita Mattila in fact the comparison is  almost impossible. But she was a good interpreter too, rather too light-voiced  on more than one occasion, and a little lacking in the lower register.

The rest of the cast feels distinctly secondary, when there is an extraordinary protagonist, as  happened in this case. Miroslav Dvorsky was a good Boris, well suited to the demands of the character and much better than in Italian opera. In the second cast  Swedish tenor Pär Lindskog was below par however - too  tight in his top range  and with  some pitch difficulties. His  voice is generally  good, but that is not enough to sing such an important role.

Julia Juon was an outstanding interpreter of the  Kabanicha, but rather better scenically than vocally. The Austrian Natasha Petrinsky made a very convincing Varvara in all senses and in addition she cut an appealing figure on stage. Guy de Mey did the job as Tichon,  Gordon Gietz made a youthful and fresh  Kudriach and Oleg Bryjak was a good Dikoj.

A full theatre, as usual.  The public enjoyed the opera and awarded an authentic triumph to Karita Mattila and Robert Carsen. The reception for Belohlavek and Natasha Petrinsky was almost at the same level. In the second cast Dankova,  was much applauded to while Lindskog was booed from the upper floors.

José M Irurzun

Picture © Javier del Real

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