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Janáček Katya Kabanova

Susan Bickley, Alfie Boe, Anna Grevelius, Clive Bayley, John Graham-Hall, Patricia Racette [pictured]

English National Opera: David Alden

Conductor: Mark Wigglesworth

London Coliseum, 1 April 2010

Katya Kabanova has been a favourite tragic opera of ours since attending its English premiere:

1951 14 Apr KATYA KABANOVA (Sadler's Wells) English Premiere: Amy Shuard, Kate Jackson, Rowland Jones, John Kentish, Robert Thomas, Harold Blackburn, c:Charles Mackerras, dir:Dennis Arundell

David Alden's characteristic take on it for 2010, in the vast opera house that was once London Coliseum, "cast big, with big voices, big performers casting big shadows" [The Independent], eschews any attempt to suggest a small claustrophobic village. We were alienated by the first sight of Alden/Silverman's gigantic black shadows. It was going to be "modern" opera in an opera house, full stop.

The physicalities of what we see on stage are comprehensively described in several reviews; we agree with those that found them unconvincing and, like Rupert Chrstiansen, we found ourselves strangely, indeed uniquely, unmoved: - - David Alden’s chilly new production left me detached and emotionally unwithered - - [Rupert Christiansen]

It is not that we yearned for a realistic, traditional setting, indeed our thoughts turned to several of the radical reworkings we had admired, notably the Salzburg DVD with Angela Denoke, and the remarkable Holland Park production by the great Olivia Fuchs last year.

From the dress circle, the magnificent cushioned sound of the ENO orchestra took a lot of our attention, but Wigglesworth's conducting was short on "bite", its sumptuousness sometimes tending to diminish the effects of the vocalists. Susan Bickley's Kabanicha was less chilling than some others going back to 1951, since when (the now Sir) Charles Mackerras has conducted and recorded it again and again.

Alden added at the end a trick which was unfair upon the audience. Having suspended our disbelief to accept the beauty of the Volga stage front, in the orchestra pit and the stalls beyond it, we waited during the last scene with bated breath whilst Katya teetered at the edge of the pit, wondering where she might make a safe landing (c.p. DiDonato breaking a leg at Covent Garden).

Alas, without any clue, Alden had switched the Volga round 180 degrees, making Katya do a back-stage leap, a cop out for the expectant audience (c.p. Evening Standard's reviewer who missed that point...).

In all our many Katya reviews, live & recorded, I have felt myself obliged to comment upon the composer's flawed ending, so rushed that no one has time or interest to check Katya's pulse or try to do anything at all before she is pronounced dead, to everyone's apparent satisfaction...

Perhaps the services of Sir Charles, who knows this score as well as anyone in the world, should be enlisted to add a minute or two's music to make for a little credibility; Janacek took compression in this concise opera, played tonight without a break, too far...

I leave readers with production images to fill in the experience for themselves; the audience (many of them new to Katya Kabanova) were clearly thrilled with the experience; may they see and hear many other Káťas in the future; a great opera which will rarely let you down.

Peter Grahame Woolf

Images: Clive Barda/ENO