Leoš Janáček (1854-1928)
Káťa Kabanová JW I/8 (1920-1921, rev. 1927)
Káťa: Amanda Majeski (soprano)
Kabanicha: Katarina Dalayman (mezzo-soprano)
Boris: Simon O’Neill (tenor)
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, 11 & 13 January 2023, Barbican Hall, London, UK
Libretto in Czech and English
Reviewed as lossless 24-bit download
LSO Live LSO0889 [99]

Káťa Kabanová (also spelt ‘Katia’, ‘Katja’, ‘Katya’, and ‘Kabanowa’) is Janáček’s sixth opera, of nine. This review is of the recently-released recording of concert stagings sung in Czech and recorded live at the Barbican in January 2023 by a cast of distinguished soloists and the LSO (London Symphony Orchestra) under Sir Simon Rattle. It has to be said at the outset that this Káťa Kabanová is superb; it is recommended without hesitation as an additional and/or first recording of Janáček’s most lyrical opera.

The second in their cycle of Janáček’s operas (The Cunning Little Vixen) was released in 2020), this Káťa Kabanová is available in five formats: on two SACDs; as MP3s; CD quality FLAC (44.1 kHz, 16 bit); Hi-Res FLAC (96 kHz, 24 bit) and lossless FLAC (192 kHz, 24 bit) files. The latter was used for this review.

Janáček wrote and revised Káťa Kabanová between 1919 and 1921. So it was his first opera after the First World War during a time of widespread elation at the foundation of the state of Czechoslovakia, in October 2018. This led to what many saw as new freedoms from domination by the recently defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire. It may not be too fanciful to hear hints of that national pride in the LSO’s alertness and vibrant playing of Janáček’s signature contours and tonalities – for instance at the end of Act I [CD.1 tr.12].

Káťa Kabanová is in three acts, lasting a little over an hour and a half, to a libretto by the composer, which is based on Alexander Ostrovsky’s five act drama, ‘The Storm’ (translated from Russian by Vincenc Červinka).

A (meteorological) storm does dominate the third act; but equally responsible for the work’s emotional charge was Janáček’s own inner turmoil borne of his love for Kamila Stösslová (née Neumannová 1891 – 1935). This was the case for a significant number of the composer’s other works, of course. Indeed it was to Kamila (nearly 40 years his junior; both were married) that Janáček dedicated Káťa Kabanová, which was premièred in November 2021 at the National Theatre Brno, conducted by František Neumann.

Neumann is one of three conductors who have produced editions and/or versions of Káťa Kabanová: Neumann at the time of that first performance prior to the opera’s publication; Václav Talich; and Charles Mackerras a full critical edition in 1992. It is the latter that has become the standard one. Then the performances and recordings of almost all of Janáček’s œvre by Mackerras are also usually considered the reference ones. It is his recording on Decca (4218522) in 1976 with Elisabeth Söderström and the Vienna Philharmonic with which subsequent readings are rightly compared – including this one, which stands up very well.

The events of Káťa Kabanová take place in and around a small town (Kalinov – fictional) on the banks of the River Volga in Russia over half a century before the opera’s composition. Its repressive – and thereby hypocritical – society prizes appearances over love and happiness. Accordingly, the prevailing mores of that society are portrayed as potentially ‘backward’. For instance at the beginning of Act III Dikoj (Pavlo Hunka, the uncle of Káťa’s lover, Boris (Simon O’Neill)), won’t have it that the storm’s lightning is to be seen as anything but a punishment from God. Then at the close of Act I, Kabanicha (Katarina Dalayman) the over-bearing mother of Tichon (Andrew Staples, Káťa’s husband), insists that it should be Tichon himself who must control Káťa’s behaviour.

At its heart the opera examines Káťa’s (Amanda Majeski) longing to escape her unhappy marriage to Tichon. While he is away, she starts a relationship with Boris. That, perhaps inevitably, leads to disaster… her drowning in the Volga. The villagers can attribute Káťa’s drowning to the storm (and the river). We can interpret her death as the conclusion of a ferocious desperation; yet we may gain some solace from the fact that she has had control at least of the end of her life. Káťa herself is resigned to the certainty that nature – especially in the shape of the Volga – will go on no matter what.

From the opera’s quiet, subdued, dark opening chords to the somewhat ambivalent tonality of its close Janáček’s melodies and colours convey spectacularly and forcefully the nuanced attitudes and actions which are responsible for the tragedy. To the fore are those characters who adhere to the prevailing morality; and so who effectively leave Káťa with a sense that she cannot live past her indiscretion. Rattle and the LSO convey these emotions and forces well throughout. Indeed, the orchestral playing is one of the strengths of this performance.

But Rattle also elicits from his singers both a doggedness and an insouciance towards their behaviours, drives and decisions. The performers never lose sight of the opera’s path to tragedy. There is a palpable gap between these rural ‘ethics’ on the one hand, and what we (and presumably Janáček) would consider more productive ways to approach the dilemmas at the centre of Káťa Kabanová on the other. Singers and players all hold both (inflexibility and regret) in mind simultaneously.

For example, there is a wistfulness in the ways in which the main Leitmotifs of the opera are played. They suggest chinks of hope: the participants should – at least they could – re-examine what is about to happen, shouldn’t they? And avoid it. Listen to the oboe and strings less than a minute from the opera’s very end [CD.2 tr.20], for instance. Was it really all inevitable?

These nuances are also achieved by the ways in which the characters articulate their thoughts. There is a distance between what’s said and what’s felt which is absent from the Mackerras account. Does Káťa really have (or believe she has) full agency? Listen, for example, to the almost boisterous ‘independence’ of Káťa and Tichon as they wrestle with their differences at the end of the first Act (“Abych ani otce”/”May I never again see…”) [CD.1 tr.12]. How much control might they have over (at least some of) the forces at work?

Bitterness abounds throughout the opera: Kabanicha, Tichon’s acerbic and controlling mother, has no sympathy for her daughter-in-law’s plight. Janáček would also have us blame Kabanicha, who restrains Tichon when he might have saved Káťa. In contrast there are those who understand Káťa’s dilemma – like Varvara (Magdalena Kozená), the family’s foster daughter) who encourages Káťa.

Janáček also wants to examine the extent to which Káťa’s final act is instigated by a mind becoming disastrously ‘unhinged’. Would there have been alternatives? Was her death inevitable? Was it ‘logical’ – ‘justified’ even? The music – especially the lustrous textures of this large orchestra – needs to be performed with an awareness of ambivalence when interpreting and reacting to Káťa’s tragedy. Such awareness is never missing in this account; nor does the playing try to achieve such distinctions by superficial faltering.

Indeed, Rattle brings these gradations out in tempi, and by deft attention to dynamics throughout the performance: was Káťa simply unable (and/or unwilling) to face what she has done; or does she take the only way out which she believes possible? Analogously, could she and Boris have done what Varvara and Vana Kudrjas (Ladislav Elgr) decide to do and leave the village for a new life in Moscow?

So Káťa Kabanová needs a sensitive handling in pace, climaxes, focus and dynamics which comparable operas like those, say, of Strauss may not; or at least not in the same ways. This was second nature to Mackerras and his cast… for him the tragedy never really seems inevitable; thus it is all the greater. Meditation on motives, outcomes, avoidance and compulsion is evident throughout Rattle’s reading. In particular Amanda Majeski’s Káťa, Simon O’Neill’s Boris, Katarina Dalayman’s Kabanicha and Magdalena Kozená’s Varvara stand out in achieving this introspection. They do so perhaps more favourably than Mackerras’s principals.

Majeski sang Káťa in 2019 at Covent Garden to considerable acclaim. Here she is even more compelling. She has more reticence, poignancy and grace than does Söderström under Mackerras, where her understanding seems tethered to the notion that Káťa is ‘mad’.

Significantly, Rattle’s Káťa Kabanová pays due respect to the inspiration which its composer took from Slavic folk culture, which is infused with the power of nature. The LSO here excels at the swellings of a large orchestra. For example during the last time that Boris and Káťa are together… Act III, scene 2 [CD.2 tr.s 17, 18, 19]. They excel too at creating the necessarily claustrophobic intimacy which pervades the opera. For instance throughout the tender scene at the end of Act I, scene 2 with Káťa, Kabanicha, Varvara and Tichon (“A potom běž domů”/”Time to go home”) [CD.1 tr.6].

The community’s concerns for appearance and reputation seem to sponsor much introspection.  This too leads to a concomitant intimacy. Listen, for example, to the duet between Káťa and Varvara in Act I, scene 2 (“Víš co mi napadlo?”/”I’m always wondering”)) [CD.1 tr.8]. And to the almost desperate love duet (“Nuže, shodli jste se?”/”Is that you, Katerina Petrovna?”) which concludes Act II [CD.2 tr.s 8,9]. In all cases the singing conveys just the right amount of longing without maudlin. The gentleness and reserve of the woodwind and strings at the opening of Act II are equally redolent of the rural setting, and of the sense that there are indeed forces of nature which will outlive all the participants – in ways which Britten suggests at the end of Peter Grimes, after Peter’s (enforced, assisted) death.

This restrained and somewhat single-minded ‘reaching’ by the high strings in moments like those at the opening of Act 2 scene 1 [CD.2 tr.2] (“Půjdu též se projít”/”I’m going for a stroll”) is closer to Rattle in Verdi than to the penetrating colour of the more steely Mackerras. Similarly expressive are the rallentando string ostinati as the three principal women sing in the first half of that same scene.

By the same token, Rattle’s singers employ marginally less rhetoric than do those on the Mackerras Káťa. For instance when they are feeling the strengths of the storm, at the start of Act III, scene 1 (“Celého mne to pokropilo!”/”I’m wet through”) [CD.2 tr.11]. Váňa’s and Dikoj’s exchanges are measured and focused, showing the undertow of contention between the two men. A few minutes later, at the beginning of (Act III) scene 2 (“Vidět se s ním”/”If only I could see [Boris] again”) [CD.2 tr.15] Káťa laments without wailing; she longs without indulgence. Surely this reflects the stern and somewhat cruel folk who surround her.

Equally important is the degree to which the singers here successfully respect and convey Czech ‘speech melodies’. For example, there are passages of pointedly rhythmical writing, which Mackerras perhaps handles less self-consciously than does Rattle. He still treats them well: a case in point is during passages which bring out the cruel behaviour of Boris’s uncle, Dikoj, towards his nephew. Boris is under additional pressure: he feels that he has to accept whatever Dikoj throws at him in order to inherit his wealth when the time comes. Perhaps this contributes to Boris’s abandon in engaging in the liaison with Káťa now, when he does. After all he has ‘worshipped her from afar’ for some time.

In Káťa Kabanová – as perhaps in no other of Janáček’s operas – charged romantic themes convey the passion of the two lovers. This too has to be presented neither in a formulaic manner nor by relying on spurious ferocity. Perhaps is is better to forget the composer’s feelings for Kamila? We hear this genuineness of balance in Act I scene 8, again, where Káťa tells Varvara of how happy was her childhood, and how natural it would be to her to be truly loved.

Rattle and his cast honour the subtleties of the opera. He has them interact in ways which bring out their actual relationships as opposed to what we’re constantly reminded was expected of them. This difference develops and hardens throughout Káťa Kabanová under Rattle and his forces in more nuanced ways than is the case with some performances – particularly that of another contender for your attention when considering a Káťa Kabanová: the one including Cheryl Barker (Káťa), Jane Henschel (Kabanicha) and Robert Brubaker (Boris) under Carlo Rizzi on CHAN3145(2).

It’s also of note that the third and final act takes place well over a week after Katya’s and Boris’s declaration of love. Realism. In fact, Rattle approaches the pacing, arcs and architecture of Káťa Kabanová slightly differently from Mackerras. Take that same scene at the beginning of Act II  again [CD 2 tr.s 1,2,3]. There is a greater overall urgency in the way in which Mackerras – if you like – drives everyone towards the river. Rattle focuses on delicacy and gentleness… pizzicati; and on ‘flexibility’ in Tichon’s and Vana the teacher’s (Ladislav Elgr), declamation. These still make for a true sense of foreboding as they set up the meeting between Káťa and Boris.

The orchestral playing of the London Symphony Orchestra is, then, convincing, lucid and just as intense as it needs to be. They play with a sense of immediacy which amply supports the choice cast assembled for this performance. Indeed, both players and singers achieve a clear sense of the beautiful and the violent. There is a balance between the otherwise potentially happy and peaceful physical environment (it’s summer) in which the characters participate in Káťa’s and Boris’s tragedy, and what could have happened. Although this contrast isn’t so tense or so searing as it is in Mackerras’s reading, there is no lack of feeling, fear and – in this new conception of Rattle’s – an awareness of the futility of escape from doom.

Janáček’s use of orchestral colour and of contrasts between (particularly) strings, woodwind and brass are iconic. Rattle elicits the best of the LSO as they seem, at times, to fold in on themselves to suggest the studied claustrophobia of the action and setting. The halting nature of the scenes towards the end of Act II [CD.2. tr.s 7,8,9] is a good example. Does Káťa suppress the knowledge which she surely has of the consequences of what she is feeling, and which she openly declares (to Boris)? Does she indulge it anyway? Or is there a wisp of hope that the ecstasy they both feel in these few brief moments might win through over her transgression(s)? Only singers and players at the peak of their powers – as here – could express the duality of feeling and lovers trying to weigh the outcome so well.

The acoustic of the Barbican is not an easy one. Yet this recording is clear, clean – without stage  or audience noise. It’s conducive to both the subtleties and the turbulence of Káťa Kabanová. When, for instance, Váňa sounds caution – with Kurwenal-like urgency – the placing of characters on the stage contrasts beautifully (though utterly unobtrusively) with the immediacy of Boris’s and Káťa’s lingering words: “You are my life. I would follow you to the ends of the earth”, they each utter; it’s as though the LSO wants to stay with the lovers and support them.

The booklet for Káťa Kabanová (available as a PDF in the downloadable formats) is excellent. It has a full cast list and profiles; a synopsis of the opera; background on both Janáček and Káťa Kabanová; there are brief biographies of composer and principals; and the libretto in Czech and English.

This Káťa Kabanová, then, is an interpretation and performance of the highest quality. Janáček aficionados will not want to be without the Mackerras version, which is also available as part of a bargain collection of five of Janáček’s operas on Decca 4756872. Although that re-issue was released in 2005, its Káťa Kabanová dates from 1976. Here now is a compelling account whose performers have clearly considered Janáček’s conception as a whole and brought us a recording to live with because it brings out the essence, subtleties and beauty of Janáček’s operatic genius.

Mark Sealey

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Other performers

Varvara: Magdalena Kozená (mezzo-soprano)
Glaša, Fekluša: Claire Barnett-Jones (mezzo-soprano)
Tichon: Andrew Staples (tenor)
Váňa Kudrjáš: Ladislav Elgr (tenor)
Kuligin: Lukáš Zeman (baritone)
Dikoj: Pavlo Hunka (bass-baritone)