Janacek - Katia Kabanova

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday November 7 2010

Conductor: Leo Hussain. Production: Andrea Breth. Sets: Annette Murschetz. Costumes: Silke Willrett, Marc Weeger. Savjol Prokofjevič Dikoj: Pavlo Hunka. Boris Grigorjevič: Kurt Streit. Marfa Ignatẻvna Kabanová (Kabanicha): Renée Morloc. Tichon Ivanyč Kabanov: John Graham-Hall. Katerina (Kát’a): Evelyn Herlitzius. Váňa Kudrjáš: Gordon Gietz. Varvara: Natascha Petrinsky. Orchestra and chorus of La Monnaie.

A friend of mine, complaining about a change of boss, once said: “They didn’t break the mould when they appointed him, it just got mouldier.” Until I actually checked, a week before, I’d supposed that La Monnaie was reviving Christoph Marthaler’s grungy but interesting “council flats” production of Katia Kabanova. It turned out that, though the Marthaler show wasn’t all that long ago, they’d asked Andrea Breth, a famous German director, to do a new one. In this case, it didn’t break the mould, but it was grungier - and less interesting (by far, so much so that even the old lady next to me, who hated the now-ditched production, found herself wishing we could have it back).

The cast looked very promising on paper, but there were some surprises in the house. The risk, I think, in Janacek is that the men let the side down, the tenors especially. It was left, for example, to Anja Silja in both Aix and Brussels to carry Makropoulos single-handed. “Janacek tenors,” as a friend and I have taken to calling them (though for all I know it may be an accepted term), are a rare breed. Kurt Streit was almost perfect as Boris. I say “almost” as even he had a touch of weakness at the cruel top. John Graham-Hall, excellent as Aschenbach in the same house, had less vocal presence here over Janacek’s writhing orchestra, but still... Gordon Gietz was, I’m sorry to say, a weak link; but with all due respect, I’ve never grasped how he became such a familiar name. To suggest it’s his looks that did it would be unkind; perhaps he shines in other repertoires.

So we had a kind of “three-bears” array of tenors, one excellent, one alright and one weak, but as this was, in a way, in order of importance in the score, so far, more or less, so good. I can’t believe, however, that it’s hard to find better singers for Dikoj and Kabanicha. Both, in this performance, had trouble making themselves heard.

The two “girls” were outstanding, or at any rate outstandingly loud, which I usually like. The odd thing was that, with Katia’s dark timbre and Varvara’s bright, clear one, the roles were somehow reversed. And Evelyn Herlitzius, after an almost wobbly, unruly start, was sometimes relentlessly, unsubtly loud – even I noticed that. But I’m not going to complain about singers who throw themselves into their parts and that you can actually hear. With Streit, they made a strong central trio and, as a result, the afternoon had its moments, reminding me (I hadn’t listened for a long time) what a beautiful opera this really is.

Young Leo Hussain, who I hear’s considered very promising, certainly seemed to have some ideas for the score, most noticeably some very loving, lingering slow bits. I haven’t heard an opening like that since Tristan in Vienna. But the Monnaie orchestra is a hard-working, professional pit band well suited to giving you excellent, no-frills Verdi and Donizetti and Rossini; it’s more a runabout than a Rolls, you could say - it isn’t a sleek, well-oiled symphonic machine of the BPO or VPO or CPO kind that can come up with the sumptuousness or paroxysms you might sometimes like (or that Hussain might have sometimes liked) in Janacek.

Nevertheless, as I said, the afternoon had its moments; and it might well have had more by far with a less distractingly failed production. There were two main drawbacks. First, in this show the singers didn’t project any convincing personality. It may or may not have been deliberate on the director’s part. She’s supposed (according to the programme notes) to have a gift for psychological penetration, so maybe she just didn’t manage to persuade the singers to believe in what they were doing. Second, the show had many of the (now clichéd) failings of German grunge-Regie, provoking a constant “so what?” exasperation all the (brief, of course) afternoon.

The single set was a filthy, gloomy yard (Anna Viebrock's council flats were glam in comparison ) with a trickle of water running through, too shallow and dirty, surely, for the old madwomen in black serving the family to do the washing in, though they tried. The modern, frosted-glass doors to the left and rear were never actually used. I imagine that was significant but I didn’t get it, or wasn’t in a mood to try. Katia was, at the start, huddled inside an abandoned fridge. Dikoj was slouched in a motionless stupor in an old armchair with his feet on the prostrate Boris; whatever the libretto said (about Dikoj mistreating Boris) neither budged until they started singing. Tichon’s relationship with his mother, as he entered, was signalled by his instantly dropping his trousers to be flannelled down by her in a tin bath.

There were the usual knickers round ankles: Varvara. There was the usual fumbled masturbation: Kabanicha (!). In her grotesque dalliance with the dead-drunk Dikoj, she started with her knees wide apart and feet on the table, eating what looked like a potato but I suppose was an apple. She then climbed on it, tore her skirt apart, grappled with him, and ended up comically with his braces twisted round her head and shoulders. There were puzzling oddities such as Kabanicha furtively shovelling earth over a doll in a corner (burying a child or what? Is this Katia or Jenufa?), or Boris arriving near the end with a little suitcase dripping blood that he eventually emptied into a bathtub.

That was the bathtub Katia had sat in, fully dressed, during her duet with Varvara (not the tin bath Boris was flannelled in: no expense spared in this show), while the latter scribbled on a dressing-table mirror with lipstick - and sang, annoyingly in such a great duet, to the back of the stage. And it was the same bloody tub Katia slit her wrists in (as the cry went up "there's a woman in the water"). The various references to religion, including, in the final scene, lots of tapers on up-ended oil drums – looking a bit like a cocktail party - and tended by those ubiquitous old madwomen in black remained nevertheless somehow incidental and almost forgettable (I mean, I nearly forgot).

Und so weiter… The Konzept was relentless nastiness. Every character was played as fundamentally vile in a senselessly amoral, violent and grimy world; as a result, you had sympathy for no-one and nothing in the story startled or shocked as it might in a more "bourgeois," better behaved setting. And as I said, the director didn't manage to help the singers project any personality: they were cardboard, cartoon monsters or zombies, often just motionless, back to the audience with dangling arms, or singing stretched flat out on the floor.

And another annoying thing… At the end of each scene, the curtain went down as soon as the singing stopped, leaving the orchestral coda in the dark.

I couldn’t be bothered to clap – until Streit appeared, then Petrinsky and Herlitzius.

Some people have a gift for brevity that I unfortunately lack. Here’s what a friend wrote: “Chekov with bite is how I like to think of some of Janaeck’s libretti but this is just a director crushing the theme with a steam roller and then putting the motor into reverse to make sure it’s quite dead. Fridge, bath, rubbish strewn everywhere...it’s all a bit hackneyed now.” ‘Fraid so.

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