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'Katya Kabanova' - twice

'Katya Kabanova' - twice

A Prague and a Geneva opera production at the Janáček Festival in Brno. Review.

It is a tradition at the Janáček Festival in Brno that one opera is presented in two different settings. This year, Leoš Janáček's opera, Katya Kabanova, was performed by the company of the Prague National Theatre, and the Swiss Grand Théâtre de Genève, directed by Calixto Bieito and Tatjana Gürbaca, respectively. (See the background and the plot of the work briefly at the end of the article!)


Katya Kabanova - Prague National Theatre

A one-sided direction, high-level vocal soloists and an excellent orchestra characterized the Katya Kabanova production of the Prague National Theatre. (It premiered on January 28 in Prague.)

The director of the performance, the Spanish Calixto Bieito, has already proven his talent many times (for example, with Schulhoff's opera Flammen, which I saw at its premiere in Prague this June). That is why I can only think about his current, somewhat disappointing production of Katya Kabanova, that Bieito was less interested in this opera. The work left him cold; it did not touch him, therefore the direction does not touch the viewer deeply either.

The production is primarily based on a single idea: it wishes to show Katya's confinement and her anxiety resulting from her repressed desires – in the most depressing environment possible. The director does this smartly and effectively, and it would not be a problem if the piece were a monodrama in which Katya was the only character. But the work is not a monodrama, and Janáček's opera (the text of which was written by the composer based on Ostrovsky's drama The storm) is about many other things. It expresses a powerful social critique of a hypocritical, bigoted community, where formalities and appearances matter more than honest human relationships and genuine emotions. It is therefore also important to depict this rigid rural society, the milieu of the small Russian town, with the Volga next to it, just as it is essential to show the relationships between the characters in depth. Janáček's work presents authentic human relationships engagingly realistically. In Bieito's direction, these are relegated to second place. Sometimes there is a complete lack of interaction between the characters, and they communicate standing far from each other and not even looking at each other. (It is interesting that in many cases the silent scenes are the most telling. For example, when Katya stares Kabanicha, her tyrannical mother-in-law, in the face for a few seconds in Act 1.) In the absence of a detailed portrayal of the social milieu and a deeper depiction of the soul, we only see the sufferings of a deplorable, abused woman on stage.

kabanova prague 1 
Katya is locked in the bigoted, cruel world in which she lives. But in Janáček's work, the sense of confinement – both for the girl and for the viewer – is paradoxically reinforced by the closeness of nature, which the direction should suggest and convey, even if it does not necessarily describe it realistically. Now that was missing, too. Katya is a romantic soul, a lover of nature. She should be allowed to admire that nature a little on the stage as well.

The girl is tormented by unfulfilled erotic dreams, which the director emphasizes strongly. He does it right, but Katya's anxious state of mind is determined not only by her repressed sexual desire but also by her desire for freedom in a broader sense. (True, the director alludes to this by a small symbol, when Katya, who escapes into a dream world, fastens her coat to the wall in the form of a bird. A simple but powerful image; it is a pity that we see little like it.)

On the one hand, Katya Kabanova is a psychological drama, but on the other hand, despite all its realism, it is also a very romantic work that cannot, or rather should not, be confined within the walls of a single, empty room reminiscent of a padded cell.

kabanova prague 2

Because the scenery of the first two acts is an oppressive, narrow space surrounded by high, grey-white walls (perhaps more like an empty swimming pool?), in which Katya runs up and down like a hunted wild animal. The top of the pool (cage?) has old bars and neon lights, and some small ventilation holes on the walls. The place is an obvious metaphor for the girl's psychological state, her sense of confinement, and as such, it is very expressive. But it would have been enough as an opening image to depict the suffocating atmosphere, in an indicative, allusive manner. However, the settings remain until the last act. All the characters live their lives in this white box. Their movements are not really well choreographed; most of the time they walk here and there left on their own. Sometimes, seemingly for no reason, they climb up the iron steps on the wall and then climb down. The women wear high heels, which they sometimes take off and then put back on; I could not figure out why. In this sterile, stripped-down space, no one seems completely normal. The motivations of the characters are difficult to recognize, and it is not easy for the viewer to identify with anyone.

 kabanova prague 3

In the second act, the direction presents the intimate encounter between Katya and Boris bluntly: the man makes love with the girl leaning her against the wall. The moment is perhaps less romantic, but believable and effective; long-suppressed carnal desires emerge from them.

In Act 3, the scenery changes, the back wall descends, and we find ourselves outside in the night. However, the illustration of the following scenes is quite disappointing. The pool, a few centimetres high, meant to symbolize the river, gives the impression of a duck pond. (At least they could have covered the faucets from which the water slowly flows in.) By the way, the gently bubbling water casts a huge, rippling shadow on the ceiling of the auditorium, which is quite spectacular, but it was difficult for me to decide whether it was just the result of a random play of lights or a conscious directorial concept. The smoke imitating the fog, as well as the representation of the storm itself, are weak; somehow the whole visuals seem cheap.

But it is still shocking how Katya falls into the dark puddle in the pouring rain... 

kabanova prague 4

Calixto Bieito captured one of the most important elements of the piece's message, Katya's increasing sense of loneliness and 'claustrophobia', and with a few simple devices, he effectively conveys them at the beginning of the piece. But he soon ran out of ideas; Bieito barely spent time and energy on developing further elements of the story, and all of this is reflected in the rough and abandoned realization. Too bad; it was a missed opportunity. The meeting of the otherwise inventive director and Janáček's masterpiece promised more.


The singers and the orchestra compensated us greatly.

Katya is the most carefully drawn figure in the piece. On the part of the singer, it requires a large vocal range, stamina, and both dramatic and lyric timbre.

Alžběta Poláčková brought the figure of the romantic girl to life with passion, pain, expressiveness in her bright soprano, singing with dramatic power, and, in other parts, with fine pianissimos. In the first act, her narration was already moving. Her sensitive acting was also evident in her expressive facial expressions (which is why it was disturbing that in Act 3, during her farewell aria, she was lit from behind for long minutes, leaving her face in the dark). Her gestures, her terrified, defensive crouching, were also telling.

 kabanova prague 5

Kabanicha and Tichon were the two figures for whom Bieito's direction offered to develop a more charismatic and complex character portrayal than the Swiss production. Both singers, interpreting them, could take advantage of the opportunity. 

The legendary soprano Eva Urbanová, in the role of Kabanicha, the rich widow who terrorises both her son and Katya, created a formidable female character. You could really hate her; she was evil incarnate. With her harsh tone and commanding accent, the singer was a force to be reckoned with even beyond the zenith of her career.

The experienced tenor Jaroslav Březina, who took the stage in the role of Tichon, shaped the character of the humiliated, alcoholic husband with unparalleled good sense. We saw a stupid, cowardly guy who is not aggressive with Katya because he enjoys it. On the contrary, he is a miserable, primitive figure who does this out of anger. Tichon is only a tool for his mother, and he hates his own life immensely. It is as if he is disgusted even with himself, but he is weak-willed and emotionally immature to express his despair in any other way or to change his life.

The good-looking Danish tenor Magnus Vigilius, who played Boris, has a sharp, less substantial but clear, strong voice that was mostly carried over the orchestra, and the singer coped successfully with the high notes, too. 

The young mezzo-soprano Alena Kropáčková, who played Varvara, not only showed remarkable vocal qualities but also an impressive acting performance as Katya's stepsister, the only truly resourceful character in the story. Compared to the Varvara of the other production, we saw a more considered and mature woman here.

In the role of the grumpy, aggressive uncle Dikoy, the excellent baritone Jiří Sulženko gave a flawless vocal interpretation of the role, but in this production, the character is a little overshadowed. I had a similar impression of Martin Šrejma's performance as Kudryash.


Katya Kabanova - Grand Théâtre de Genève

We saw the second Katya Kabanova of the festival (premiered in Geneva last month, on 21 October) in the guest performance of the Swiss Grand Théâtre de Genève, directed by the German Tatjana Gürbaca.

This production was more spectacular and elaborate, though not necessarily more thoughtful in all aspects than the Prague direction. The performers, however, were once again first class.

Here, too, the setting of the action is symbolically depicted: vast spaces, separated by geometrically precise edges, with walls resplendent in bright colours. At the beginning of the performance, before the first bars – rather as a brief 'homage' to the original setting – the waiving Volga appears in the background.

kabanova geneve 1 

The large, clean spaces suggest a luxurious environment. It soon becomes clear that we see the interior of an upscale modern villa, with servants, walls imitating marble, and monumental windows, although the time of the action cannot be specified in this performance either. (Which is also made difficult by the eclecticism of the costumes. Dikoy, the uncle, is a kind of farmer-like figure, Kudryash wears a fur cap, while a woman in a sweater is constantly pressing her mobile phone. In Act 3, the people gathering in the rain are mostly villagers, and a little girl playing ball also appears, perhaps from the beginning of the last century.) But the appearance and behaviour of the main characters and the interiors of the villa certainly give us a glimpse into the life of a modern family living in luxury.

The precise clockwork movement of the set elements and the walls would almost give the venue a phalansterian feature, if all this were not softened by the warm earth tones of the floor, ceiling, and walls. The scenery is thus very pleasing to the eye. Which, however, cannot be easily reconciled with the coldness of the plot's atmosphere, nor the wide spaces with Katya's anxious psychological state, her sense of confinement.

 kabanova geneve 2

Changing the location, era and milieu raises another problem, too. The otherwise well-developed dramaturgy, which meticulously depicts the relationships between the characters, falters in the last act. Because it is hard to imagine that this modern Katya would commit suicide because she cheated on her husband. She would rather divorce or just leave, like her stepsister Varvara does. We know, of course, that for those living in an abusive atmosphere, it is never that simple (though the clumsy Tikhon of this direction is less likely to be able to keep his wife under threat). Of course, an aggressive environment can drive someone, in this case Katya, to the point of desperation, even suicide, but not because she cheated on her husband. The title character in Janáček's opera is a deeply religious girl in a small 19th-century Russian town, caught between the constraints of tradition, moral conviction, and desire as a member of a duplicitous, ruthlessly strict, narrow community. In that world, Katya's suicide is understandable, and there is really no way out for her. Speaking of the protagonist of the current production, this is less plausible.

 kabanova geneve 3

Apart from the above anomalies, the scenes are realistic and carefully and precisely elaborated.

The duet of Katya and Varvara in Act 1, the frolic of the well-to-do girls and Katya's 'confession', are brilliant. All their movements and sentences are emphatic and expressive.

Although in Calixto Bieito's direction I saw the point of depicting the love scene in a brutal way, I have to admit that the Swiss production's more subtle choreography, which only hinted at physical love, made the tryst of Katya and Boris more erotic. The entire scene, as Varvara and Katya sneak out into the night to Kudryash and Boris, seems very natural. Katya's frilly skirt and wedding veil – which she finally takes off during the scene to continue the rendezvous in her underwear – are imaginative and witty.

The sadomasochistic scene of the mother, Kabanicha, and the uncle, Dikoy, which was lost in the other production, is also well developed.

I liked how the characters of the following scene become visible 1-2 minutes earlier, motionless, as a 'snapshot'.

 kabanova geneve 4

However, the terrifying storm scene in the third act is uneven. The small group standing under a single umbrella in the night rain against a dark backdrop is more reminiscent of a lovely comic opera scene. The staging of Katya's last scene also left me with ambivalent feelings. Next to the already insane girl, who is about to commit suicide, during her grand aria, we see the other protagonists on stage, standing around, loitering, smoking cigarettes. As if the director did not trust that only one character, Katya, would be enough for the scene. But she is enough, provided that the title role is sung by a singer of the right quality (and Corinne Winters, who sang Katya, is such a singer). Apart from that, the composition of the scene is clever. The characters, completely insensitive to the girl's suffering and fate, mechanically repeat the same movements (Dikoy, for example, has a heart attack every minute and reaches for his medicine). Katya's death, as she slowly disappears backstage into the darkness, is shocking and beautiful. 

kabanova geneve 5


It is hard to imagine a more international company than the one in the Swiss production.  

We heard Corinne Winters in the role of Katya. The American soprano, having a brilliant voice, interpreted Katya with sensitivity, longing and tenderness. In her ecstatic love duet with Boris, she sang with high emotional intensity, and, in her last aria, with great pathos. Her appearance and fragile shape also predestine her for the role (as Janáček wrote about Katya: 'a breeze would carry her away – let alone the raging storm that gathers over her').

In this production, Katya's stepsister Varvara is an adventurous, fun-loving young girl, seemingly respectfully trying to live up to the expectations of an oppressive environment and an even more oppressive mother. At the right moment, however, she leaves for Moscow with his boyfriend without thinking. The young Croatian mezzo-soprano Ena Pongrac captured the essence of the character well.

In this direction, Tichon is a bumbling official who is less likely to be an aggressive alcoholic. The character in the other production was more convincing to me, but this Tichon was also interpreted with empathy by tenor Magnus Vigilius (the same singer who sang Boris in the other performance).

Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Zhidkova portrayed the tyrannical Kabanicha. She did it excellently and impressively, although this production made the character less prominent than usual. 

The voice of the Czech dramatic tenor Aleš Briscein, who sang Boris, harmonized perfectly with that of Corinne Winters, their voices almost blending in the great duet of the second act.   

kabanova geneve 6 

With his dark tenor, the Welshman Sam Furness who took the stage as Kudryash, made the role even more significant than usual.

The Icelandic baritone, Tómas Tómasson, was a charismatic Dikoy both vocally and dramatically, although he overplayed the role of the violent uncle a bit.

Even the performance of Mi Young Kim, who sang the minor role of Glasha, the maid, was elaborate; she was always active, reacting to the events around her even when she was not singing.


The choirs and the orchestras

The choir, representing the locals, has little to sing in this work, but in the finale, the choirs of both directions produced an accurate, evenly balanced sound. At the first performance, we saw the members at the back of the stage, at the second they sang behind the scenes.


The poignant, grand melodies, darkly resonant harmonies, and joyful, playful, folk-inspired rhythms of Janáček's sumptuous, varied Late Romantic score are combined with ingenious orchestration. As is typical of the composer's operas, the events are interpreted at least as much by the orchestra as by the vocal parts. The atmospheric power of the music, the illustration of nature – the river, the landscape full of violent storms – is impressive, as is the music's portrayal of the characters' state of mind, and the precise, sophisticated characterisation (especially in the case of Katya). Even the long overture is already telling: the gentle nature is illustrated by soft harps, while the brasses and the timpani (which are also particularly effective in the storm music) warn of the storm and impending tragedy, but the music is just as meaningful in the orchestral interludes that interweave the scenes and locations.

Both performances featured a first-rate, thoughtfully constructed orchestral interpretation, with the intensity of the music almost never waning. The orchestra of the Prague National Theatre conducted by Jaroslav Kyzlink and the Suisse Romande Orchestra from Geneva under the baton of Tomáš Netopil both played expressively and diversely, interpreting the rich score with depth, intensity, dramatic power, and lyricism, creating an ideal atmosphere for the events on stage.


The concept of the Janáček Festival presenting one opera in two different staging and with two different ensembles may seem surprising at first. However, it is worth 'trying it out' as a spectator because any doubts will soon be dispelled: seeing two different interpretations of the same work in succession is a particularly exciting theatrical and musical experience.

Balázs Csák

photo: Marek Olbrzymek


November 9, 2022, Janáček Festival, Janáček Theatre, Brno


Leoš Janáček:


Opera in three acts


Libretto by Leoš Janáček, based on Alexander Ostrovsky's drama The storm

Dramaturg: ifj. Beno Blachut Jr.

Lighting designer: Michal Bauer

Costume designer: Eva Butzkies

Set designer: Aída Leonor Guardia

Chorus master: Jan Bubák

Conductor: Jaroslav Kyzlink

Stage director: Calixto Bieito


Katerina/Katya (Kateřina/Káťa): Alžběta Poláčková

Boris: Magnus Vigilius

Dikoy: Jiří Sulženko

Kabanicha: Eva Urbanová

Tichon: Jaroslav Březina

Kudryash (Kudrjaš): Martin Šrejma

Varvara: Alena Kropáčková

Kuligin: Jiří Hájek

Glasha (Glaša): Kateřina Jalovcová

Feklusha (Fekluša): Jana Horáková Levicová

Featuring the Choir and Orchestra of the Prague State Opera


November 13, 2022, Janáček Festival, Janáček Theatre, Brno


Leoš Janáček:


Opera in three acts


Libretto by Leoš Janáček, based on Alexander Ostrovsky's drama The storm

Dramaturg: Bettina Auer

Lighting designer: Stefan Bolliger

Costume designer: Barbara Drosihn

Video: Kamil Polak

Set designer: Henrik Ahr

Conductor: Tomáš Netopil

Stage director: Tatjana Gürbaca


Katerina/Katya (Kateřina/Káťa): Corinne Winters

Boris: Aleš Briscein

Dikoy: Tomas Tomasson

Kabanicha: Elena Zhidkova

Tichon: Magnus Vigilius

Kudryash (Kudrjaš): Sam Furness

Varvara: Ena Pongrac

Kuligin: Vladimir Kazakov

Glasha (Glaša): Mi Young Kim

Feklusha (Fekluša): Natalia Ruda

A woman: Mi Young Kim

A man: Natalia Ruda

Featuring the Choir of the Grand Theatre of Geneva and the Suisse Romande Orchestra of Geneva


Katya Kabanova - background

Katya Kabanova was premiered in Brno on November 23, 1921. Along with The cunning Little vixen and Jenůfa, it is Janáček's most popular opera. The libretto was written by the composer, based on Alexander Ostrovsky's drama The storm. Besides Moravian folklore and folk music, Janáček's other lifelong love was Russia, its culture, music, and literature. After his first visit to Russia, he founded the 'Russian Circle' in Brno. He composed both Katya Kabanova and his last opera, From the house of the dead, based on works by Russian writers (Ostrovsky and Dostoevsky).

Janáček's muse at this time was already Kamila Stösslova, a much younger married woman with whom he had an intimate, if one-sided, relationship for many years. In Katya Kabanova, the hopeless love with no future between the title character and Boris, can clearly be paralleled with the relationship between the composer and Kamila Stösslova.



Katya lives unhappily in a small Russian town near the Volga with her husband, Tichon, who is ruled by his tyrannical mother, the widow Kabanicha. When her husband goes on a business trip, Katya can no longer resist the temptation. At the urging of the family's foster daughter, the free-spirited Varvara, she embarks on a passionate affair with Boris, who has always loved her from afar. When Tichon returns, Katya cannot face what she has done; she throws herself into the river.