This is a live recording of the 1998 Salzburg Festival
performance. The playing of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra is superb
under the inspired conducting of Sylvain Cambreling as is the singing
of the Slovak Philharmonic Choir. The recording is also excellent and
sounds especially good in Surround Sound.
Angela Denoke in the title role is most impressive,
with a beautiful full soprano voice and excellent vocal acting. Jane
Henschel sounds suitably menacing in the part of Kabanicha and Dagmar
Peckova also sings impressively. The plot is dominated by these three
women but the male parts are also very well sung with David Kuebler
excelling as Katia’s lover Boris.
Musically therefore this DVD is excellent, but one
does not buy a DVD just to listen but, equally important, to watch.
Here we are on more debatable ground with the stage production by Christoph
Marthaler and set by Anna Vielbrock being very much a ‘concept’ production.
The opera now takes place in a courtyard surrounded by modern apartment
blocks. However the left-hand part of the stage is decorated with a
shabby wallpaper which presumably means we are looking into a ground
floor flat – however at times the stage represents the inside and at
other times the courtyard or both. This is confusing to the eye as we
never know which people can see each other. Much of the acting is strangely
stylised, with characters sometimes leaving the stage or at other times
go up to the wall and stand motionless with their face and body pressed
against the wall. From time to time lights go on in upstairs apartments
and we can see people going about their everyday life before the light
In the middle of the stage is a collection of what
seems to be small plastic Christmas trees but eventually are revealed
as being a fountain with a few squirts of water being ejected from time
to time. This desolate vision of modern urban living gives a claustrophobic
brutality to the proceedings. The costumes are suitably in tone; seldom
on stage have the female characters worn such unflattering garments.
Poor Katia is wearing an old raincoat much of the time and Kabanicha
and Varvara wear mini-skirts which they decidedly do not flatter. In
particular Kabanicha loses all dignity and looks just like an old slut.
The worst part of this updated setting is that the
plot itself is undermined. Thus at the opening, instead of gazing
in awe at the might of the Volga, Kudrjáč is staring at a small
picture of the River. For the final suicide, Katia instead of throwing
herself into the Volga just lies down to die amongst the Christmas trees
(sorry! – in the fountain). More importantly perhaps it is difficult
to imagine that in the setting of a very secular modern Eastern Europe,
people would be so affected by committing the sin of adultery to be
driven to suicide.
Despite the set, the cast provide a level of acting
which is unusual in opera. In particular we can see the mental deterioration
of Katia before our eyes, her acting cannot be over-praised. The lack
of any interval increases the strain for both the actors and the viewer
but also undermines the passing of time in the story. To this reviewer
this seems a classic example of an imaginative concept which undermines
rather than illuminates the opera.
The filming in the DVD is good and despite reservations
about the visual side of the production the excellent musical performance
and good acting of this fascinating opera gives pleasure. The presentation
and notes are adequate but not up to the very high standard often found
in DVDs from this company.