Mark Twain once said that a Wagner opera started at six o’clock and when it had been going for two and a half hours your watch said twenty to seven. With Janacek it is quite different. After an act during which you are put through an emotional wringer your watch tells you that the act lasted just half an hour. Fanciful, of course but Janacek’s dramas are condensed to the bone. There is urgency but no hurry the characters are in depth, you know them well, you feel for them. Janacek’s material for one act would last two hours if the composer were Richard Strauss or Wagner. I always associate Janacek with Chekhov who similarly condenses and conveys much with minimal material.
Janacek hits you between the eyes (and sometimes below the belt) and so it was at Opera Holland Park on July 30 with Kat’a Kabanova the whole opera hardly exceeds ninety minutes yet by the end we feel that catharsis has happened. The orchestral role is as important as the heroine’s, perhaps more so; surely she is the most neurotic female in all opera: she dithers hopelessly on an emotional precipice, poor darling, before drowning herself, having crassly blurted out her adulterous guilt in front of the convention-ridden neighbours. In her last scene Janacek gives her a soaring phrase that is the ultimate in tear-provoking beauty.
The French soprano Anne Sophie Duprels was thoroughly convincing in the title role, both vocally and dramatically. I had not encountered the conductor before now but I hope to do so again, for Stuart Stratford directed a memorable and satisfying performance, directing the City of London Sinfonia to heights of passion and virtuosity. The composer puts his fiddlers through many hoops, make them scream away up in the rosin and cope with keys that are difficult, and they have to play many diddle-diddle passages with ferocity.
The bitch of a mother-in-law was vividly played by Anne Mason and Tichon likewise by Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts. Usually this wimp of a husband is played by a small singer but here was a big burly wimp; all the more telling to see this giant of a man cringing before his ghastly mother. It was good to see that mother’s lover played by Richard Angus; he is by now a real veteran but still in good voice. And what a voice! It is like the thickest and darkest brown Windsor soup.
At first I thought the movements of the chorus exaggerated but as time went on I appreciated their stylisation as the most Victorian-style hostile mob. Olivia Fuchs direction had both respect for the score and a likely invention; costumes and designs by Jannis Thavoris very good.
What a master Janacek was and how amazing that in the last decade of his life he poured out so many works, operas, string quartets, big orchestral works and a whopping great mass!