Leoš Janáček’s tragic tale of a woman torn between passionate love and marital duty is beautifully framed by the industrialist Soviet Union in Scottish Opera’s production which follows the eponymous Katya (Laura Wilde), as sin leads to a deadly descent into madness. The sensitive precision of the orchestra, the raw emotion communicated by the singers, and the innate heartbreak of the story all come together to create an intensely powerful performance. However, the real star of this show is designer Leslie Travers, whose recreation of a stagnant, Brutalist Russian town perfectly complements the dramatic deterioration of the protagonist.
The story depicts the crippling loneliness and oppression of Katya, heartbreakingly portrayed by Wilde. Neglected by her frustrated husband (Samuel Sacker) and emotionally abused by her domineering mother-in-law (Patricia Bardon), she is enticed into an affair with the passionate Boris Grigoryevich (Ric Furman), setting her on a path of guilt, madness and ultimately, demise. Though the plot is somewhat uninspired, its execution by Scottish Opera cannot fail to move, in its almost claustrophobic focus on Katya, painted by Wilde as an utterly pitiful figure from the outset.
The story is brought to harsh reality by Travers’ dreary, unforgiving set, inspired by Brutalism architecture and the anonymity and apathy of industrial Soviet Russia. The triumph of the staging is undeniably the two independently-moving rusted bridges which provide a stark contrast between the controlled industrialism of the town and the wild chaos of the river Volga. Director Stephen Lawless effectively utilises Travers’ set to communicate Katya’s descent into madness: one bridge collapses when Katya becomes consumed by her sin and the climax, Katya’s suicide, is manifest as a shocking jump that encompasses the full height of the stage. This upholds the shock of her fate, despite her death being portrayed at the beginning of the play.
Much of the symbolism used in the production is somewhat clichéd, however, this is arguably necessary to convey the story which is performed in the original Czech, with English supertitles overhead. The technical precision of the orchestra, an impressively powerful unit conducted faultlessly by Stuart Stratford, helps to bring this symbolism to its dramatic climax. A particular highlight comes at the end of the first act after Katya has given in to Grigoryevich, when she drags mud over her face and chest, defiling herself and her pure white dress. This is made more intense by the ominous murmur of the orchestra, quiet in its communication of her despair.
Kátya Kabanová is neither original nor unpredictable. Instead, its power lies in the unrelenting hopelessness of the protagonist, communicated harrowingly by Wilde and complimented by the rest of the cast, particularly by the unrelenting aggression of Barton’s Kabanicha. This tragedy extends from the characters to encompass every aspect of Scottish Opera’s production, epitomised in the brutal realism of the incredible set. This production is a triumph ‒ Travers’ triumph.
Image: James Glossop