Review: Kát’a Kabanová
No one wins in patriarchy.
Although not a radical statement in itself, for an opera, and especially an opera first performed in 1921, it is not necessarily what we expect. Kát’a Kabanová may include the seemingly obligatory soprano death but this is not the misogynistic punishment of the fallen woman that we usually see. Instead, Leoš Janáček’s score and Richard Jones’ direction bring us a production which exposes the nuances, the stifling homogeny and the turmoil inflicted by toxic patriarchy.
This production recasts Janáček’s tragedy to a decidedly 1970s community full of flares and tram stops. This is a similar aesthetic world to Michael Pearce’s Beast and the Soviet Budapest in Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The set, designed by Anthony MacDonald, has many similarities with an Ikea dollhouse with its multitude of hidden doors and sliding panels revealing street lights and enclosing the inhabitants and homes of suburbia. Our heroine, Kát’a, is dressed by unknown women at the beginning in a more 1950s outfit, her outward, traditional role literally constructed around her, even if this technique has become somewhat ubiquitous in recent years. The relocation is certainly effective, though. The muted tones and raincoats are far more relatable and recognisably oppressive than the traditional staging of the world of a hundred years ago. It also makes the stifling world far less excusable.
The production creates a world in which women have largely become the guardians of patriarchy. When Kat’á is left at home with her weak and unresponsive husband’s family whilst he travels for business, she desperately seeks connection with the frankly unexciting but at least affectionate Boris. On her husband’s return, she admits her infidelity and eventually drowns herself under the weight of the public and her mother-in-law’s shaming. Unknown women throw seeds at Kat’á after her public admission but it is her husband’s mother who is the real force. Kabanicha is dominating, perhaps incestuously jealous and seemingly omniscient, watching the young women’s night escapades from behind the net curtains. Whilst Kat’á and Kabanicha’s ward Varvara unite to chase their desires, their rewards are far from exciting and the weight of Kat’á’s church upbringing cannot be escaped - the idea of sin, and especially women’s sin, is too deeply ingrained.
The core strength of this production is its trio of women. Amanda Majeski’s performance as a woman trapped between her desire for connection and societal pressure is beautiful. Her stillness and silence break the fourth wall in ways which are usually reserved for soliloquies. The relationship between Kat’á and the younger Varvara, charmingly created by Emily Edmonds, feels entirely natural. You can’t help wishing you were their friend too. Together they encourage each other to explore their desires, recognise their pain and challenge their socially enforced guilt. Even if the men they risk it all for are sweetly naff, it only increases the sense that these are women taking risks for themselves and owning their desires, not chasing Prince Charming.
Susan Bickley’s Kabanicha is a curious figure. On the one hand, she administers the wroth of patriarchy with the language of duty and sin. On the other, she is transgressing the rules she administers in her clandestine affair with Dikoj. For once, the kink of their interaction is very much within the libretto. However, her control of her son is not overplayed. Yes, she is the mother-in-law from hell ~ jealous, controlling and bitter ~ but it never reads as a misogynistic trope. Instead, Kabanicha’s desperate belittling and control of her son is understandable, if regrettable, in a society where it is her only power and requires her strict public adherence to its rules.
Another strength of this production centres around its adherence to the score. Janáček’s music follows the rhythms of speech and this production allows it to inform everything. The performances, the staging and design all hold close to the realism of the score. The arias are monologues so intense that you almost forget this is an opera, but never fully because the musicianship is far too good.