- Gareth K Vile
- 13 March 2019
Love does not conquer all
The strength of Stephen Lawless' production of Katya Kabanova lies in both its respect for the clarity of Janacek's score and a dramaturgy that emphasises the resonance of the grand emotions contained within the taut domestic tragedy. A spectacular set – Leslie Travers' design turns the river Volga into a desolate swamp dominated by oppressive steel bridges that channel the characters through an alienated landscape – sets the melancholic tone as Katya struggles in a loveless marriage before finding the brief happiness in the arms of a lover, which ultimately destroys her.
Lawless guides the characters through their elemental conflicts with a symbolic precision. Katya (Laura Wilde) is an innocent, in a white dress that becomes muddied as her moral compromises destroy her hopes, dwarfed by the metal bridges and a curiously colourless nature. Katya's vicious mother-in-law – performed eloquently by Patricia Bardon – draws pantomime boos as well as applause for her espousal of savage, patriarchal values, while the parallel lovers, Vanya and Vavara (Trystan Llyr Griffiths and Hanna Hipp), capture a youthful yearning and sensuality in stark contrast to Katya's doomed fling with Boris (Ric Furman).
The stark minimal staging allows the libretto to drill down on the emotional turmoil: although Janacek claimed that fate drove his protagonist to her doom, the subtle interactions between wife and husband and mother-in-law reveal a similar psychology to that of the nineteenth century playwrights' naturalism, as Alexey Gusev's Kuligin fails to respond to Katya's romantic yearnings and leaves her to find solace with Boris. The third act, with its rapid denouement and references to medieval visions of hell, is all the more brutal for the score's rich and melodic energy: the dynamism of the duet and aria are placed at the service of a love story that is both contemporary – the pressures of business encourage Kuligin's neglect – and classical in its pared down serious intensity.
If the elements are predictable – like an operatic Chekhov's gun, a river is wasted if the heroine doesn't dive into it to her death – and are enmeshed in the domestic conditions of the early twentieth century, Katya Kabanova offers a depiction of the way that patriarchal values conflict with romantic fulfillment, marginalising the wife and forcing families apart. The plot, which adds the parallel lovers and the difficult family situation of Boris to echo and reflect on Katya's dilemma, exposes the power of desire – inevitably associated with nature, but a nature stripped of fertility and vibrancy by the scenography – and the relentless horror of guilt and familial oppression.
Theatre Royal Glasgow 14, 16 March and touring.