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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Katya Kabanova (1919-21)
Cheryl Barker (soprano) – Katerina (Katya); Robert Brubaker (tenor) – Boris Grigoryevich; Jane Henschel (mezzo) – Marfa Kabanova (Kabanicha); Peter Hoare (tenor) – Tichon Kabanov; Gwynne Howell (bass) – Dikoi; Victoria Simmonds (mezzo) – Varvara; Peter Wedd (tenor) – Vanya Kudryash; Kathleen Wilkinson (mezzo) – Glasha; Owen Webb (baritone) – Kuligin; Claire Hampton (soprano) – Feklusha; Sian Meinir (mezzo) – Zena; Philip Lloyd-Holtam (tenor) – Passer-by
Chorus of Welsh National Opera
Orchestra of Welsh National Opera/Carlo Rizzi
rec. Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, 11-15 December 2006. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 3145(2) [64:33 + 27:05]

The latest instalment in the Chandos Opera in English series, sponsored by the Peter Moores Foundation, presents one of Janáček’s most beloved operas, Katya Kabanova: Kát’a Kabanová in the original Czech. This is the fifth Janáček opera in the Chandos series, the others being Jenůfa, The Makropulos Case, Osud (Fate) and The Cunning Little Vixen. All but the last were conducted by Janáček authority, Sir Charles Mackerras. Sir Simon Rattle did the honours for the Vixen. I was surprised to see Carlo Rizzi as the conductor for this new Katya, not realizing that he had established his Janáček credentials as long ago as 2001 when he opened the Welsh National Opera’s most recent production of the opera. Overall, he interprets fairly well, although he does not erase memories of the various Mackerras performances — most recently (June 2007) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. At times Rizzi underplays the drama, while at others — the orchestral climaxes — he tends toward Puccinian melodrama. Yet on a superficial level he produces a convincing account of the opera. His cast also convinces, especially Gwynne Howell as Dikoi, though the portrayal of the title role leaves something to be desired. The main attraction here is the use of the English language, which is so clear that one rarely has to refer to the text printed in the booklet accompanying the set. By the way, the booklet also contains an extensive note on the opera and profiles of the performers. This recording of Katya Kabanova can be recommended to anyone wanting to hear the work in English — and there is something to be said for hearing opera in one’s vernacular. However, with this composer the Czech language is such an integral part of the music that much is lost no matter how good the translation. Now to some specifics and comparisons with other recordings.
The recording from which I came to know and love Katya Kabanova was issued as long ago as 1962. The performance was by the Prague National Theatre conducted by Jaroslav Krombholc. Listening to the Supraphon LPs now brings back fond memories. The interpretation is much more lyrical than any since, with Drahomíra Tikalová giving an especially touching portrayal of Katya. The orchestra also plays with that inimitable Czech sound of yore, the woodwinds and horns with their softer timbres. All of the principals were excellent, and Beno Blachut’s Boris Grigoryevich particularly outstanding. The duet between Varvara and Kudryash at the end of Act II with its folksong elements was also a highlight. Of course, there were drawbacks. The drama was a bit short-changed, at least until Act III, and the edition used was somewhat corrupt. It took Charles Mackerras to remedy that. All the same, it would be worthwhile to have this available on CD. To my knowledge it has never been transferred to this medium.
Mackerras has recorded the opera twice. Of the two performances, the first from 1977 with Elisabeth Söderström, Petr Dvorský, and Naděžda Kniplová on Decca is superior. It received the Gramophone Record of the Year Award in 1977 and has rarely been out of the catalogue since. It set a new standard in both performance and recording and was the first to use the corrected edition of the score. This included two short orchestral interludes Mackerras found in Prague that at some time had been removed from the score, but have been included in performances ever since. The characterizations of Katya, Kabanicha, and Boris have never been surpassed. The Vienna Philharmonic play like native Czechs and the sound of the recording is still vivid. Mackerras’s second recording, for Supraphon, with Gabriela Beňačková in the title role and Eva Randová as Kabanicha is also excellent, though it does not surpass the earlier Decca. While Randová is on the same level as Kniplová, Söderström displays a more multi-faceted character than Beňačková, good as she is. Of course the Czech Philharmonic performs with all the authority expected. The main drawback is the more distant recording, lacking the immediacy of the Decca version or this new one for Chandos, for that matter.
The English-language version here is its own raison d’ętre. Anyone coming to the opera for the first time will find plenty to enjoy. It certainly aids one’s understanding of the text, especially with the clarity and impact of the recording. It’s only when one makes a detailed comparison with the Mackerras recordings that one realizes what is missing. For one thing there is not enough contrast between the two main female roles. Cheryl Barker has a strong soprano voice that becomes mezzo-ish at times and lacks the vulnerability of Beňačková and especially Söderström. For example, in the dialogue between Kabanicha and her at the beginning of the second act there is too little distinction between the voices. Barker made a better Elena Makropulos in the English-language performance of The Makropulos Case conducted by Mackerras on Chandos. Her voice quality and personification of the more dramatic role suited her better than Katya does here. Henschel is more convincing as Kabanicha, even if no Kniplová or Randová. The other characters are better cast, especially the Dikoi of Howell as mentioned above. Comparing Mackerras and Rizzi is also telling. Mackerras finds so much more in the great orchestral score. The wonderful woodwind and horn parts accompanying the voices make a greater impression in both his versions. Rizzi, on the other hand, skates over the surface much of the time. In addition, both Mackerras recordings capture the effects of actual staging. This includes the sound of real thunder so crucial in Act III, whereas Rizzi settles for timpani to achieve the effect. Some may consider this an advantage, but for me it robs the performance of the necessary theatricality. Overall, the earlier Mackerras also gives better value in that it includes excellent recordings of the Concertino and Capriccio, performed by Paul Crossley with ensembles from the London Sinfonietta conducted by David Atherton. It is now available at mid-price.
To summarize, this new recording of Katya Kabanova is for those wanting to hear the work in English and it provides a fair representation of the opera. For those who want the real thing, however, Sir Charles Mackerras’s 1977 Decca version still rules.
Leslie Wright


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