Katya Kabanova

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

Keith Bruce

four stars

IT is Scottish Opera’s misfortune that this new production of Janacek’s Katya Kabanova should be third of a glut of Katyas, after Covent Garden and Opera North, but without seeing the others you can be sure none looks quite like this one.

Director Stephen Lawless has transplanted the story from the beginning of the last century to around 50 years later when the Russia the composer so admired had become the industrialised rust-belt Soviet Union. The rush-grass and mud flats that replace the garden of the Ostrovsky’s source drama here will be familiar to estuary-dwellers in Scotland, and the mobile iron bridge structures of Leslie Travers’s imposing set recalls the work William Dudley made for Bill Bryden’s The Ship in the Harland & Wolff engine shed in Govan in 1990. The Volga and the Clyde have much in common.

This is no mere conceit, but carried through impressively with Katya’s deliciously malicious mother-in-law (Patricia Bardon, on glorious form) in charge of the factory from which she dispatches her obedient son (Samuel Sakker) on the fateful business trip during which Varvara (a welcome return by Hanna Hipp) persuades our troubled heroine to stray into the arms of Boris Grigoryevich (American tenor Ric Furman).

This is a staging full of big stuff - the articulated mobile metalwork collapses at a symbolic angle in Act III - that also delights in small things. Katya’s dreams of flying are illustrated by a single feather and the key to the garden gate and her freedom to love glistens in the palm of her hand. Assisted by colloquial surtitles, this is a storybook Katya bookended by scenes of her predestined death.

Perhaps the staging does more of the work than the music really requires, however. Once again, this is again a very strongly cast show, co-produced by Theater Magdeburg, with a host of Scottish debuts. Furman is characterful, if occasionally overwhelmed by the orchestra, in music that gives the winds have a full Janacek exposure and first horn Sue Baxendale has a showcase night. His compatriot Laura Wilde is in fine vocal form throughout as Katya, but perhaps a little placid for the wonderfully tormented music the composer gives her to sing. Wishful thinking on his part, of course, but that’s another story.