Charles Mackerras does not need reviews – the audience felt honoured for having the opportunity to listen to Janacek’s Katja Kabanova conducted by such a widely acknowledged specialist. Although the Royal Opera House band cannot dream to compete in rich, crystalline and flexible sounds with the orchestra in the conductor’s studio recording, the Vienna Philharmonic, the great Australian conductor extracted the best from them – for more than commendable results. All orchestral effects were beautifully pulled out and the theatre was often bathed in exquisite sonorities. Also, Trevor Nunn is an experienced opera director and the cast seemed at ease with his sensible scenic solutions. I have found Marja Björnsson’s expressionistic settings striking and beautiful, but I was not entirely satisfied with having indoors scenes played outdoors, when the idea of claustrophobia is central to the libretto.The setting for Katja’s public confession of adultery was particularly misguided. This is supposed to happen during a rainstorm, but everybody looks really dry while lighting candles and painting icons in open air unsheltered from the bad weather. Katja herself is seen in a white dress and I ask you – who would go out under a rainstorm in the countryside in light colours? When the action is based on a naturalistic play called “The Storm”, details like that should deserve some consideration.
In the title role, Janice Watson displays a formidable sizeable voice with forceful top notes, a pleasant medium and rich, low notes. She can more or less fine down her soprano to piano, but it rarely floats. However, the sound tends to be really metallic. It works well for Katja, but I cannot imagine her singing other kind of repertoire in which this could be an advantage. As Katja, I repeat, she was tremendous. She is a beautiful woman, a very believable actress with reserves of stamina and offered a gripping performance.
Taking the role of the Kabanicha, Felicity Palmer confirmed what an immense artist she is – a powerful stage presence and an irresistible voice – forward, colorful and perfectly focused. She could even find a humane note to her role, bringing the obsessive motherly love to the core of her performance.
Kurt Streit has an amazingly spontaneous voice – bright, easy and homogeneous. His Boris did not not displayed Petr Dvorsky’s Italianate alpha male attitude – and that only helped to make Katja’s infatuation for him more touching.
Reduced to character roles such as Tichon, Chris Merritt still brings some satisfaction in his big, rather dark tenor. It is a difficult role for an actor, and he could find some truth it. Toby Spence was a great Kudrjas – a warm pleasant strong voice and a very likeable personality. Oleg Bryak (Dikoj) has a huge dark voice – and I suppose the off-pitch effects are part of the Slavonic kit of expressive resources. Finally, Liora Grondikaite (Varvara) has a very rich and vibrant mezzo and a lovely stage presence.