Review: Katya Kabanowa at Schiller Theater – Berlin 

1 Mar

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by Rhea H. Boyden

A couple of weeks ago I went to the Schiller Theater to see a Staatsoper production of Czech composer Leo Janacek’s opera Katja Kabanowa. I purchased a chocolate bar with raspberry filling and wandered around the foyer absorbing the atmosphere before taking my seat for an opera that promised to be a thrilling 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission. With the tang of raspberry still on my tongue, I read in the German supertitles over the stage that it was to be behind the raspberry bush and through a gate that the leading lady Katya was to be seduced and led to her doom.

Katya, sung by Dutch soprano Eva Maria Westbroek, is the unhappy merchant’s wife who attempts to escape her weak husband and overbearing mother-in-law by starting an affair with Boris a local merchant’s nephew. Janacek based his character somewhat on his muse, the merchant’s wife Kamila Stösslova, a woman 37 years younger than him who he was very much in love with throughout the composition of the opera Katya Kabanowa, which he wrote between 1919 and 1921. He showered her in letters and did not get the response he had hoped from her. Remembering that raspberries were the fruit that impressed me in the opera, I read with much entertainment that Janacek tried to conceal his erotic fantasies for Kamila in fruit metaphors, writing to her: ‘you are as round as a small apple that is ripe for biting into.’

As obsessed as he was with Kamila, he clearly did not waste all his time on fruit fantasies of her, as he also managed very well, quite apart from being a successful composer, to master the Russian tongue. He was very much in awe of Russian literature and it is easy to see that Katya Kabanova is influenced by Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Kerenina. The opera is also based on the 19th century Russian playwright Alexander Ostrowski’s popular play ‘The Storm’.

‘The Storm’ and ‘Katya Kabanova’ are both examples of Realism which had its roots in French literature in the mid 19th century. Realism depicted every day and banal activities of especially rural life and the hardships people faced. Janacek was a modernist and was fervently anti-romanticism. He set his opera on the banks of the River Volga in Russia in the 1860’s and the story shows how miserable the main leading lady-Katya-is with her lot in life.

Previous operas such as ‘Tristan and Isolde’ and ‘Pelleas and Melisande’ had sung and praised everlasting romantic love, but by the end of the 19th century this ideal of romantic love was dying, and its death was being depicted frequently in art, music and literature. It was clear that a grown human can change and have more than one passionate love in a lifetime and also that adultery happens.

So what happens to Katya behind the gate that is behind the raspberry bush? It is here that she follows Varvara, sung by mezzo-soprano Anna Lapkovskaya, Kabanicha’s foster daughter, to meet her lover and to cheat on her husband. But Katya does not do this without realising fully that it is a sin that she will have to pay for, ultimately with her life, for Katya is deeply religious and she knows that her erotic fantasies are a huge sin. She is driven to madness and suicide by her inability to reconcile her need for love and affection from a man who is not her husband, and her deep-seated knowledge that it is so very wrong.

In the scene before Varvara leads her to the gate behind the raspberry bush, Katya sings of how easy and free her life was before she was married. How she loved it, above all, to go to church. The orchestra, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, sets the scene of a church mass. Indeed, it was very important to Janacek to have his music match the action on the stage as closely as possible. Katya tells Varvara of her deepest and most intense dreams. She dreams of golden high cathedrals and high mountains and unseen voices that speak to her. One unseen voice that enters her now is evidently the voice of the devil, that will, despite her pious nature, lead her to her doom and she has no strength or will to ignore it.

Love was very much depicted as a sin in much of Russian literature and it is also the women who seemed to suffer the most for it. Katya is surrounded by weak men, especially her husband, Tichon-tenor, sung by Stephan Rügamer- who is unable or unwilling to protect her from his overbearing mother Kabanicha who is the heartless, jealous, cold and hypocritical character in this story.

Kabanicha, sung by American mezzo-soprano Deborah Polaski, seems to be the ultimate symbol of cold realism in this story. And it is she who drives Katya into her escapist and intense dreams and erotic fantasies that provide her a balm to soothe her pain-temporarily.

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And while Janacek set the original story on the banks of the River Volga in the 1860’s, German stage dierector Andrea Breth sets this story in modern times and the opening scene shows Katya in a fridge next to an empty bottle of vodka. In the first act the fridge door is closed in her face locking her inside. This is not exactly a subtle metaphor for being locked up and treated coldly by those around her. And the bottle of vodka? It is not drunk by Katya but by Dikoj the drunk and maudlin merchant, sung by bass Pavlo Hunka. One scene depicts him and Kabanicha on the table engaging in a ridiculous looking sex act, him drunk and her putting her hands down his pants. All the time she is dressed in a beautiful purple dress, the fanciest in the whole set of costumes, which in some ways is supposed to show her decorum. But it is a false decorum, clearly. She is just as weak as the next person, but tries to hide her human weaknesses behind her social standing and powerful position in the community. Kabanicha and Dikoj feel that they are immune to sin by doing the right things in society such as paying alms and duties. They will never suffer the pain of great love as Katya does, as they are incapable of loving and caring as deeply as she does.

There is one scene in the opera where Katya and Boris- sung by tenor Florian Hoffman- sing a duett. It is the only scene in the whole performance that is a duett and is a chilling reminder that the romantic love depicted in many operas past is dead. It is a last stab at love that will soon die with Katya’s demise and downfall. Katya hopes for some relief for her sins when she admits to all -in the middle of the raging storm that has rolled up the Volga- that she has betrayed Tichon. She does not gain any relief from this confession, but rather angers all involved, bringing yet more criticism upon her from her evil mother-in-law. Boris, her love, is sent to Siberia by his uncle for his sins, and to add to Katya’s misery, he does not seem to really protest this.

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Katya is now completely alone and she sings of how her grave will look after she is dead. It will be beautiful and birds will fly over it- you can hear the birds in the violins and clarinets. Flowers will grow on her grave and she will finally be at peace- a peace that was never afforded her in her time on earth. In Janacek’s original piece she then opens her arms and jumps in the Volga and drowns. In this, Andrea Breth’s interpretation, she slits her wrists while lying a bathtub. And the greatest tragedy of all lies in the fact that the opera does not end with Katya’s death, rather the assembled group argue over her dead body. Tichon cries and blames his mother Kabanicha for Katya’s downfall. His accusation is not heard and Kabanicha shows little remorse for Katya’s death. Tichon loved her, to be sure, but he was never able to stand up to his mother and his love for Katya was too little too late. The opera ends with Kabanicha thanking the assembled company for their help. She can continue in her false ways, no doubt still holding power over her spineless son.

Photos by Bernd Uhlig courtesy of the Schiller Theater Press Office

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