Theatre Review: Opera North’s Katya Kabanova – The Lowry, Salford

The cast of Opera North's Katya Kabanova

The cast of Opera North’s Katya Kabanova. Photo Credit: Jane Hobson

Performed entirely in English with subtitles on stage, Opera North’s Katya Kabanova offers a short and sweet introduction into the world of opera

Layering class, duty and passion, Opera North’s Katya Kabanova plunges audiences into her turbulent love life with an intense operatic performance.

Trapped in a small town, a loveless marriage and under the watchful eye of her overbearing mother in-law, Katya unmasks her repressive surroundings in a story embracing love and loss. The tale centres around a Russian family living in Kalinov besides the river Volga. Based in the 1860’s within a community built on old-fashioned traditions, the families settle in on opposing sides of convention, symbolising and rebelling against societal pressures.

With no intermission, the uninterrupted 1 hour 40-minute production brings a weighty drama that pulls focus on Katya’s natural, human desired for love. Played alongside the river Volga that draws on folklore and myth, composer Leoš Janáček portrays an intensifying storm that embodies Katya’s repressed emotions.

Influenced by Alexander Ostrovsky play The Storm (1859), the themes that centre around social reform condemn the damaging and controlling consequences that traditional customs can have on individuals. With the Kabanova household framed in a solid rock on stage, Opera North’s production calves the conflict into the environment, caging Katya in the centre of the conflict throughout the performance. With exterior set pieces incorporated within households, director Tim Albery transforms The Lowry stage into a haunted and claustrophobic space that cloaks Katya in an inescapable darkness. Despite the beautiful handcrafted oak props and intricate Edwardian costumes, Katya is imprisoned within the landscape, with her red hair visibly searing against the grey backdrops.

When Katya discovers her freedom and pleasure lies with her neighbour, she turns to her educated friend Boris to escape from her constrictive life. Her dejected, alcoholic husband Tichon and his controlling mother Kabanicha played by Heather Shipp, effortlessly illustrates the ridged world that Katya faces within the few scenes she appears in. After urging her son to take a trip without his wife she imposes a list of rules for him to deliver, including not staring out of the window all the live long day.

In a searing juxtaposition to Katya’s overwrought life, her sister Varvara and her boyfriend parade their love proudly choosing to leave their small village and head to Moscow. While Boris and Katya’s intimate connection soon leads to an affair, the stifled Katya is quickly consumed by the guilt and shame with the superb score carrying the god-fearing heroines compelling pleas for forgiveness.

In the title role, Rebecca de Pont Davies’ high emotional performance unfolds from passionate solos to heated duets that spill out into a mournful finale. Conductor, Sian Edwards steadily builds Katya’s unrest alongside a developing thunderstorm with a forceful soundtrack performed by the live orchestra. The world she inhabits incorporates folksy melodies that integrate the community and customs passed down from one individual to another. The final scene in which the village come together for their closing send-off is particularly striking.

Performed entirely in English with subtitles on stage, Opera North’s production offers a wholly accessible launch into the opera world. For anyone who wishes to dip their toe in the river Volga, this short and sweet feature makes the perfect introduction.

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Opera North’s Katya Kabanova played at The Lowry on 7 March 2019