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Leoš JANÁCEK (1854-1928)
Katia Kabanova
Katia Kabanova – Angela Denoke (sop)
Boris – David Kuebler (bass)
Kabanicha – Jane Henschel (con)
Tichon – Hubert Delamboye (ten)
Varvara – Dagmar Peckova (sop)
Slovak Philharmonic Choir
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Sylvain Cambreling
Directed by Christoph Martheler, design and costumes – Anna Viebrock
Recorded 1998
LPM Stereo, Dolby 5.1, DTS 5.1
[107 minutes]


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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 goes out.

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.

Arthur Baker

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