Everything you need to know about Janáček’s Katya Kabanova in one place – right here!
What is the story?
Katya Kabanova takes place in a small, isolated Russian town on the banks of the ever-present Volga river. In this repressive society in which rules and appearances are all that matter, Katya feels trapped. Unhappily married to Tichon, who is dominated by his bitter and controlling mother Kabanicha, she longs to escape.
When Tichon is sent away on business, temptation proves impossible to resist. Encouraged by the family’s foster daughter, Varvara, Katya begins a passionate affair with Boris, who has loved her from afar. However, when Tichon returns (amidst a violent storm), Katya can no longer face what she has done, and her mind begins to unravel, drifting further and further towards the river…
Who are the characters?
Katya Kabanova (soprano)
Boris – her lover (tenor)
Tichon – her spineless husband (tenor)
Kabanicha – his controlling mother (mezzo-soprano)
Dikoy – Boris’ abusive uncle (bass)
Varvara – foster daughter of the family (mezzo-soprano)
Kudryash – her lover (tenor)
Servants of the family also appear. The chorus, as the townspeople, have very little to sing, but in our production are at times silently present as a black-clad bourgeoisie, looking on and watching the action unfold.
What is the music like?
Janáček’s music for Katya Kabanova is folk-inspired and totally unique. The opera is scored for a very large orchestra, which is used to paint effects in nature (from the river to violent storms), and can create overwhelming swells of sound.
The vocal lines are some of Janáček’s most romantic, particularly in Katya and Boris’s love duet, where passions, that have been repressed for so long, boil over. However, there is also a lot of angularity in the score and jaunty rhythms, heard a lot with the darker characters of Kabanicha and Dikoy.
Folk themes are incorporated in Janáček’s trademark synthesis (he had spent much of his life collecting and studying Moravian folk songs). In particular, the vocal melodies incorporate the rhythms, pitch contour and inflections of Czech speech to create distinctive ‘speech melodies’. Hear some musical extracts below.
What is this production like?
Tim Albery’s acclaimed production is effectively pared down to focus on the opera’s central characters and the intense drama unfolding between them.
The proximity of the Volga river and surrounding nature is suggested by the glimmering green beyond the claustrophobic walls of the set (designed by Hildegard Bechtler). Although the walls appear in different configurations, the audience is aware of having seen them before, enhancing the sense that Katya is trapped and will never really be able to leave.
Costumes are Edwardian (the era of the opera’s premiere rather than the setting of the original play). Everything is formal and buttoned up, with little skin on display, and many of the characters wear entirely black, portraying the suffocating rigidity of the society. Only free-spirited Varvara appears in white – a stark contrast to the rest of the town, from which she and lover Kudryash are eventually able to escape.
Katie Bray as Varvara and Alexander Sprague as Kudryash © Jane Hobson
Who was the composer?
Katya Kabanova was written by Czech composer Leoš Janáček (1854-1928). Janáček was something of a late bloomer – Katya is considered to be his first ‘mature’ opera, even though he was 67 when it premiered.
The opera is based on Russian play The Storm by Alexander Ostrovsky, which appealed to Janáček’s interest in national phenomena and science (there are discussions about lightning conductors in the libretto!) However, his primary muse was Kamila Stösslova, a much younger married woman whom he had met in 1917 and developed a deep, and unrequited, obsession for. Katya Kabanova is a tribute to her – we can see paralleled in Katya and Boris all the futile emotional energy poured into a relationship that has no possible outcome.
The opera premiered in Brno on 23 November 1921. Today it is Janáček’s second most frequently performed opera worldwide, after The Cunning Little Vixen.
Did you know?
– At only 1 hour 40 minutes, the story is very fast moving, and each scene tells the audience only what they need to know and nothing extra – creating a concentrated dramatic experience.
– As well as Moravian folklore and folk music, Janáček’s other lifelong love was Russia – music, culture and literature. Following his first visit to Russia, he founded a ‘Russian Circle’ back in Brno, and both Katya and his final opera From the House of the Dead are based on Russian themes.
– Opera North has performed Katya Kabanova 29 times in its 40-year history, in two different productions, with a further 7 performances in 2019.
Katya Kabanova is sung in English and lasts approximately 1 hours 40 minutes (with no interval). Join in on social media with #ONKatya
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