Distilled Drama: Káťa Kabanová at the Staatsoper Berlin

Janáček – Káťa Kabanová

Savël Prokofjevic Dikój – Pavlo Hunka
Boris Grigorjevič – Simon O’Neill
Kabanicha – Karita Mattila
Tichon Ivanyč Kabanov – Stephan Rügamer
Káťa – Eva-Maria Westbroek
Váňa Kudrjaš – Florian Hoffmann
Varvara – Anna Lapkovskaya
Kuligin – Viktor Rud
Glaša – Emma Sarkisyan
Fekluša – Adriane Queiroz

Staatsopernchor Berlin, Staatskapelle Berlin / Thomas Guggeis.
Stage director – Andrea Breth

Staatsoper, Berlin, Germany.  Saturday, October 12th, 2019.

The opening of Andrea Breth’s staging of Káťa Kabanová, originally produced for La Monnaie – De Munt in 2010 and tonight revived by Michael Csar, is certainly arresting.  The auditorium was plunged into darkness and the opening measures emerged from nothingness, seemingly emerging from the darkest place.  As an illustration of Káťa’s despair, it definitely provided an effective way of setting the scene for the evening ahead.  Káťa Kabanová is a piece where the mighty Volga river is ever present, whether in Váňa’s opening ode, or at the end when Káťa flings herself into it.  Yet it’s an aspect completely missing from Breth’s staging.  Instead, she distils and frames the drama to its very minimum – even going so far as to perform the piece without intermissions.  That isn’t to say that water isn’t present on stage – a bath takes a prominent place at the front of the set, while the opening of Act 2 was accompanied by pouring rain on stage.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig 2014

Breth gives us a world almost completely devoid of goodness.  Simon O’Neil’s Boris is quite brutal to Florian Hoffmann’s Váňa in their Act 2 duet, though this felt gratuitous and not especially convincing, particularly as it made it hard to believe why Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Káťa would fall for such a brute.  Perhaps, though, this was the point.  In Breth’s world, Káťa is highly damaged, destined to go from one dysfunctional relationship to another.  It’s just that this portrayal seemed to jar with the expansive lyricism of the love music.  Similarly, Karita Mattila’s Kabanicha, initially uptight, her hair tied up impeccably, was seen to be quite keen on a physical relationship with Pavlo Hunka’s Dikój, one that involved her literally getting her leg over him on a table while strangling herself with his suspenders.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig 2014

Breth does give us some memorable stage pictures.  The interior of the church in Act 3, occupied by women entirely dressed in black, or the Kabanicha burying a child as the others went about their business around her, immune to the horror.  At the same time, the stage felt cluttered, with the extraneous action distracting from the principals who were often left to gesticulate or writhe around the floor at the front of the stage.  Still, it’s a serviceable staging.  One that distils the drama, even if along the way not everything convinces.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig 2014

What did convince, though, was Westbroek’s commanding assumption of the title role.  Her Káťa was always deeply felt and honestly sung, paying scrupulous attention to dynamics and phrasing with generosity.  Nowhere more so than in her big Act 3 monologue, which she sang with uninhibited freedom.  The role sits in a good place for her silky soprano with a metallic core, though it must be admitted that the top now sounds short, with pitching in the uppermost reaches rather approximate.  That said, I was completely won over by how Westbroek sang her role with such big-heartedness and dedication of feeling, making her Káťa so poignant in this brutal world.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig 2014

Mattila gave us a terrifically spiteful Kabanicha, spitting the text out with sheer malice.  The registers have now parted company in her soprano, that trademark lunar duskiness is still there but she also made considerable use of a pungent chestiness.  Her stage presence is undimmed, utterly magnetic, even when not singing.  What will stay with me is how she sang those closing phrases, draining the tone of colour and emotion, leaving this spectator with the impression that Káťa’s loss was just one event among many others.  O’Neill coped heroically with the demanding tessitura of Boris’s music.  It sounded to my ears that the voice took a little while to find the core, sounding somewhat wiry initially.  He warmed up nicely as the evening progressed, singing with bright, clarion heft and impressive cutting power.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig 2014

The remainder of the cast reflected the high standards expected at this address.  Anna Lapkovskaya was an enthusiastic Varvara, singing with extrovert freedom but with a relaxed approach to pitching.  Hoffmann sang Váňa in an easily-produced, sandy tenor with a simple lyricism.  Pavlo Hunka gave us a resonant Dikój, while Stephan Rügamer sang Tichon with a characterful tenor.  In the smaller roles, the veteran Emma Sarkisyan sang Glaša with a still fruity contralto, while Viktor Rud, even in his short phrases, gave notice of a handsome musicality.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig 2014

Thomas Guggeis led a Staatskapelle on excellent form, notable for a deep pile carpet of string sound that resulted in long-breathed, aching phrases with searching portamenti.  Other than some very slight scrappiness in the very high violin writing, the quality of the orchestral playing was first-rate.  Guggeis brought out the uniquely Janáčekian combination of angularity and long-lined lyricism.   Yet, I wasn’t always convinced by Guggeis’s conducting in the same way as I felt about the staging.  While he always allowed the singers through, it felt that his direction was prosaic, lacking in tension, that irresistible sense of a horrible drama driving to its tragic conclusion.  There was much beauty along the way, but it didn’t quite crackle in the way one would ideally hoped it would.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig 2014

On the whole, despite some reservations, this was a satisfying evening.  The staging and conducting were never less than serviceable and the orchestral playing was superb.  It was well sung, again with some reservations, throughout the cast and notable for a heart-rending account of the title role from a singer who really did give so much of herself to us.

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One comment

  1. Glad to hear Westbroek had a success. At one point she was actually my favorite soprano of her generation, like Mattila she just has the power to convey and the dusky textures of her voice fascinated me. But her top notes, never her glory, really are starting to go and at this point she’s cancelled a lot and has no real new roles lined up. So I’m happy there is still some stuff that works for her.

    Mattila is goddess.

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