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Leoš Janáček

Katya Kabanová with Shuard, conducted by Kubelík

1954. Sadlers Wells
'Katya Kabanova' from Sadlers Wells in 1954. This was the first staging of any opera by Janaček in the UK.
Composer Leoš Janáček
Conductor Rafael Kubelík
Singer Amy Shuard
Ensemble Sadlers Wells Opera
Genre Opera

Wish-fulfilment as tragedy: Katya Kabanova

The 12-years-delayed Prague premiere of Jenu°fa on 26 May 1916 not only marked the turning-point in the 62-year-old Janácek’s acceptance as a successful composer on the international stage – over 70 new productions of the work were mounted during the following decade – but also furnished the circumstances that brought him into contact with Kamila Stösslová, the 26-year-old wife of a Prague-based antique dealer. His unreciprocated – indeed, unwanted – infatuation with her, which endured for the remaining 12 years of his life, fuelled a remarkable Indian summer of creativity that saw the composition of Katya KabanovaThe Cunning Little Vixen, The Makropoulos Case, From the House of the Dead, the Glagolitic Mass, both string quartets and the Sinfonietta. This creativity was also fuelled in a strictly practical, as opposed to psychological, sense by the fact that in 1920, the Brno Organ School – which Janácek had founded more than 40 years earlier, developed into the Music Conservatory, and had run virtually single-handedly as both senior administrator and pedagogue – was effectively nationalized by the Czech government in Prague. Janácek himself was richly pensioned off with a sinecure professorship in the capital. Suddenly, he had artistic inspiration, financial ease and temporal opportunity on his hands, all as never before.

Janácek had seen Vincenc Cervinka’s new Czech translation of Alexander Ostrovsky’s 1859 Russian play Groza (The Storm) in the composer’s native Brno in 1919, and had immediately regarded it as suitable operatic material, setting about trying to contact the elusive translator to discuss terms. Though in subsequent correspondence Janácek endlessly reiterated his assertion than the opera – Katya Kabanova, as it became retitled, after its eponymous heroine – came into being as a portrait of Kamila Stösslová (an assertion that barely survives the least scrutiny of the work itself, except insofar as its lovingly lapidary portrait of an unhappily married, adulterous wife is the purest wish-fulfillment fantasy on Janácek’s part) it is in fact far more significant that the work is the first fruit of the newly-famous composer’s life-long pan-Slavic love-affair with all things Russian. (In 1897 he had founded a rabidly anti-Austro-Hungarian society called the ‘Russian Circle’ which was eventually banned by the police; and Janácek was generally obsessed with contemporary Russian culture rather than the high German variant everywhere evident, to his disgust, in Prague.) Another, perhaps surprising influence on Katya Kabanova’s general tone of helplessly crushed womanhood was Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, which Janácek had seen locally shortly after its Italian premiere, and had visited frequently thereafter, most recently in December 1919, writing immediately to Kamila that the heroine reminded him of her, and that the opera moved him to tears with its passionate beauty and profound tragedy.

Groza concerns the stultifying effect of petit-bourgeois mercantile morality and religious hypocrisy as practiced in a fictional Russian town on the banks of the Volga in the mid-19th century. Typically for an opera composer, Janácek was unconcerned with the broad political critique and the minutiae of quotidian life that the play steadily accumulates around its heroine, and himself cut about half of the text, rearranging what was left, while retaining prose as the textual form, all to the evidently redundant Cervinka’s astonishment. Though the setting and most of the action is at some considerable social remove from the altogether more authentically Czech peasant-based Jenufa, there is a strong typological similarity between the two works in that the central conflict in both revolves around an emotionally fragile and compromised woman, torn between two unsatisfactory men, and her fate at the hands of a monstrous, manipulative foster mother/mother-in-law. But whereas Jenufa rather unexpectedly takes a turn for the better towards the end, with forgiveness and reconciliation the order of the day set to a blazing surge of orchestral affirmation, Katya Kabanova ends bleakly, in blackest tragedy, as the heroine drowns herself, whilst her unruffled mother-in-law merelythanks those present for fishing the body out of the river. Of redemption or spiritual renewal there is not a trace: Katya’s truthful spirit is simply crushed by the stifling, rigid conventions of her society as practiced by hypocrites and liars.

Accordingly, the sound-world of Katya Kabanova is considerably more abrasive than that of Jenufa, shot through with minatory ostinati representing malignant fate (a musical trait Janácek shared with, and in all probability derived from, his beloved Tchaikovsky).The vocal writing is also far more ejaculatory and fragmentary, set against jaggedly irregular pulsating orchestral backgrounds, and exploring an altogether darker palette of colours.

The whole work was effectively composed in 1920. Janácek started work just three days after receiving Cervinka’s permission on 2 January, though work on Act 1 was continually interrupted in the first third of the year by the nightmarish, much postponed preparations for the Prague premiere of Mr. Broucek’s Excursions (indifferently received in the event). Act 2 was written between mid-September to mid-October, after the composer had taken his habitual summer-long restorative cure – always a fallow period for him, in stark contrast to the furious scribbling of both Mahler and Strauss at precisely this time of year – and polished off Act 3 on Christmas Eve. Two bouts of revision took place in early 1921, and the new opera was premiered in Brno on 23 November that year. In the title role was Marie Veselá – who had sung both Jenufa and, remarkably, Kostenicka, and had been instrumental in bringing about Jenufa’s belated Prague premiere – with Marie Hladíková as Kabanicha, conducted by Frantisek Neumann. Janácek had attempted to persuade Kamila Stösslová to attend, pouring on the charm and likening her not only to the heroine – adulterous and dead at the end: how Kamila must have been thrilled! – but also to Cio-Cio-San, with whom the seriously sentimental, little remarked side of Janácek’s psyche always found himself in complete identification.

Stösslová, of course, declined, and though the composer subsequently dedicated the score to her – and inscribed an astonishingly flowery and effusive love-poem in her actual copy – she only, finally, saw the opera in 1928, the year of Janácek’s death, seated between him and her husband, with poor Zdenka,  Janácek’s wife, stuck somewhere behind in the box.
Though staged with some alacrity elsewhere – Klemperer conducted the German premiere in Cologne in 1922 – the work took 30 years to make its debut in England, when, on its premiere at Sadler’s Wells on 10 April 1951 conducted by Charles Mackerras and with Amy Shuard in the title role, it was the first Janácek opera ever to be staged in the UK (it received its first Covent Garden performance as late as 1994, under Bernard Haitink).This present performance was a 1954 revival at Sadler’s Wells of Dennis Arundell’s staging with substantially the same cast, though with the significant replacement of the original Kabanicha, Kate Jackson, with Edith Coates, and Rafael Kubelík – about to become the short-lived music director of the Royal Opera House – instead of Mackerras.

© Stephen Jay-Taylor, 2010

Rafael Kubelík, the son of the world-renowned Czech violinist Jan Kubelík, had conducted the Czech Philharmonic in 1934 when still only 20 and had become thereafter its chief conductor shortly after the German invasion of his homeland, a post he just about managed to keep throughout the war despite constant friction with Nazi officialdom. Immediately after the war he founded the Prague Spring Festival and resumed full-time conducting of the Czech orchestra until the Communist coup of 1948, whereupon he fled, saying ‘I have lived through one form of bestial tyranny, Nazism. As a matter of principle I am not going to live through another.’ His official defection took place here in England, where he had arrived to conduct Don Giovanni for Glyndebourne Festival Opera. Thereafter, following his rejection of the BBC’s offer of principal conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in succession to Adrian Boult made at about the time of his pioneering studio recording with them of Jenufa (also available from mpLIVE, LM7407) he took on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Alas, his commitment to modern music programming soon soured that relationship, and he returned to England in 1954 to conduct the revival of Katya Kabanova at Sadler’s Wells while concluding negotiations to assume the Music Directorship of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, the following year.

A brief period of glory ensued, including the epoch-making production of The Trojans in 1957. Unfortunately, tireless xenophobic mischief-making by that faux-
Falstaff of the British musical scene, Sir Thomas Beecham, whose nose was thoroughly put out-of-joint by Covent Garden’s disinclination to let him anywhere near either the building or the repertory he regarded as his own fiefdom, eventually undermined Kubelík’s position, which he vacated in 1958.  The undoubted bedrock of Kubelík’s later career was his 18-year long stint as Music Director of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra throughout the 1960s and 70s which firmly established the band as one of the world’s greatest, a reputation it maintains to this day. Kubelík retired from that post in 1979 – officially pensioned off as a German civil servant at age 65 – and retired definitively in 1985, suffering with arthritis, though he reappeared in 1990 to conduct his beloved Czech players in order to celebrate the fall of Communism. He died in 1996.

Amy Shuard was a Londoner born and bred, who studied at Trinity College of Music, and who won a medal from the Worshipful Company of Musicians which took her on a sponsored tour of South Africa, where she made her operatic debut in 1948, aged 24. Upon her return to London the following year, she joined the permanent ensemble of Sadler’s Wells Opera, where she remained until the end of the 1953/54 season, whereupon she was offered the same post at the Royal Opera House, debuting there in December 1954 as Aida, doubtless as a result of her latter-day studies with Eva Turner who had overseen her transition to hochdramatisch repertory. There she remained, steely-voiced and shrewishly intense, a not-always properly appreciated house fixture giving hundreds of performances across some 68 revivals of hard-graft repertory including Turandot, Brünnhilde, Kundry and Elektra, singing her last role at Covent Garden – the Kostelnicka – in May 1974.
She died, aged 50, in April 1975.

Edith Coates was another Trinity alumna, though of an earlier generation than Shuard. Born a Lincolnshire lass in 1908, she began her professional career in 1924 as a member of the Vic-Wells Opera company (which became Sadler’s Wells Opera in 1931) and sang at the Wells Theatre in Islington regularly until 1946, creating Auntie in the 1945 premiere of Peter Grimes, as well as being a house-stalwart in Verdi mezzo roles (which she had studied with Dino Borgioli).The following year she joined the newly formed Covent Garden Opera, singing the title-role in the company’s inaugural Carmen, and remained there until 1967, bowing out with the Marquise in La fille du régiment. Other notable roles included Amneris to Welitsch’s Aida, Herodias to Varnay’s Salome, Margret and Countess in Wozzeck and The Queen of Spades, both under Erich Kleiber, as well as his Klytemnestra, and she was both
Fricka to Hotter’s Wotan and Waltraute to Flagstad’s Brünnhilde, clocking up nearly 200 performances in her career at Covent Garden. She died in 1983, aged 74.

The remainder of the cast were all variously stalwarts of the Sadler’s Wells repertory company, some of whom – Harold Blackburn and Sheila Rex among them – continued effectively ‘in service’ right through into the removal to the Coliseum and the subsequent renaming as English National Opera.

John Kentish (Tikhon) was at least as much evident at Glyndebourne as SWO, where he was much admired in the major Mozart roles. He retired from singing in 1963, and for the next 14 years was the director of studies at the London Opera Centre.
He died in 2006, aged 96.

Rowland Jones (Boris) came from a Welsh mining family and worked at the Steer Pit before joining the Black Dyke Mills Band as a euphonium player. He made his Sadler’s Wells debut in 1946, as Turiddu, and remained with the company as a principal for 12 years. He died in 1978, aged 66.

But the name that leaps out from the cast list is that of the Dikoy, Owen Brannigan, an Englishman who started out as a carpenter in his native Newcastle before studying at the Guildhall School in London, where he won the gold medal in 1942.The following year he made his Sadler’s Wells Opera debut as Sarastro, and stayed with the company until 1958, in the course of which he created the roles of Justice Swallow in Peter Grimes and Collatinus in The Rape of Lucretia. Most notably of all, he was Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1960 at Aldeburgh, and can be heard on Britten’s own Decca recording of the work. He appeared at Covent Garden, and became something of a television personality, avuncular and rich-toned, during a period when terrestrial broadcasting still found room for opera-singers as entertainers. He died in 1973, aged 65.

© Stephen Jay-Taylor, 2010

The opera is set in the town of Kalinovo, on the Volga, in the 1860s.

Act 1

Scene 1

Outside the Kabanovs’ house; afternoon.
Kudryash and Glasha, one of the Kabanovs’ servants, admire the view over the river in the afternoon sunlight. The merchant Dikoj and his nephew Boris approach, the former berating the latter for his indolence and for getting under his feet. Dikoj goes off to find Kabanicha, the widowed matriarch of the Kabanov household.
Kudryash asks Boris how he can put up with being treated in such a way; Boris explains that his parents are dead and that he and his sister will inherit a substantial legacy from his grandmother only on condition that he lives with his wealthy uncle and shows him respect. Boris is complying for his sister’s sake. Boris confesses to
Kudryash that he has fallen in love with a married woman, Katya Kabanova.
He sees her returning from church with her husband Tikhon, her mother-in-law Kabanicha and Kabanicha’s foster child Varvara. Kabanicha is nagging Tikhon, telling him to go to the market; she complains that since Tikhon married Katya, he neglects her. When Katya speaks, Kabanicha tells her to be quiet. Katya goes inside, leaving Kabanicha grumbling. After she has gone, Varvara accuses Tikhon of failing to protect his wife from Kabanicha’s insults and of being too fond of drink. Tikhon slopes off to obey his mother. Varvara expresses her love and pity for Katya.

Scene 2

In the Kabanovs’ house
Katya and Varvara are sewing. Katya wishes she could fly like a bird: she used to be a free spirit, but now everything is different. Before she married she loved going to church, where she had wonderful visions. Now she has a foreboding that she is falling into sin and that nothing can save her. Varvara asks if she is ill; Katya says she
senses the devil whispering to her, embracing and seducing her. She confesses her guilty love for another man. Varvara tells her not to be ashamed of it.
Tikhon arrives to say goodbye before leaving on his business trip. Katya pleads with him not to go, or else to take her with him: she thinks something dreadful will happen if he leaves her and begs him to make her swear an oath that she will be faithful to him in his absence. Uncomprehending, he refuses.
Kabanicha appears and tells Tikhon everything is ready for him to set off; she orders him to tell Katya how to behave while he is away. He sheepishly repeats her humiliating instructions to be polite, to respect her, to work, and not to look at other young people. Left alone, Tikhon and Katya have nothing to say to each other. Kabanicha returns. Katya throws her arms round Tikhon, for which she is rebuked by Kabanicha, who makes her son bid her goodbye.

Act 2

Scene 1
In the Kabanovs’ house; late afternoon
Katya and Varvara are again sewing. Kabanicha reproaches Katya for making such an exhibition of herself when Tikhon left, but now not observing the respectable convention of making a public display of missing him. Katya protests that she cannot pretend to do so. Kabanicha goes away.
Before Varvara sets off for a stroll, she gives Katya the garden-gate key; she has stolen it from Kabanicha’s hiding place and substituted another. She tells Katya that if she sees Boris she will tell him to come to the gate. Katya is disturbed to learn of Varvara’s plan. She is about to throw the key away when she hears voices (of
Kabanicha and Dikoj), so she quickly hides it. Confident that she is alone again, she decides that Fate has intervened and wonders whether it would, after all, be sinful just to see Boris. She finally admits that she does not care what happens as long as she can meet him, and she leaves, longing for nightfall.
Kabanicha comes in with Dikoj. He is drunk and asks her, as she is the only one who can do it properly, if she will chastise him. He tells her how, during Lent, he swore at and beat a peasant who asked for money, but then begged the peasant’s forgiveness. Kabanicha tells him to pull himself together.

Scene 2
Outside the Kabanovs’ garden gate; night
Waiting for Varvara, his lover, Kudryash sings a song about a maiden who is being courted expensively by a young man but who loves someone else. Boris arrives and says that he has just met a girl who directed him there: he has come in the hope of meeting Katya. Kudryash asks him if he really wants to risk ruining a married
woman. Boris describes how he has become infatuated with Katya since seeing her at church. Varvara arrives and she and Kudryash go off towards the river.
Alone, Boris reflects on the uncertainty he feels. Katya appears. At first, guilty and frightened, she rejects his advances, but when he declares his love for her she renounces her free will. She is tormented by the sin she is committing but ready to suffer for it. Katya and Boris wander off and can be heard in the distance as
Kudryash and Varvara return, laughing at the way thay have deceived Kabanicha.
Kudryash is worried that Kabanicha will wake up but Varvara reassures him that she sleeps soundly – and Dikoj is with her.
Kudryash hears the nightwatchman and calls to Boris and Katya to go.

Act 3

Scene 1
A ruined building overlooking the river; two weeks later
A storm is brewing. Kuligin and Kudryash shelter from the rain in a ruined building and notice that its walls are covered with paintings depicting the damned descending into the fires of Hell. Others come to shelter, including Dikoj.
He rejects Kudryash’s scientific explanation that thunderstorms are caused by electricity and says they are punishments from God. The rain stops and Dikoj walks out.
Varvara appears and warns Boris that Tikhon has returned unexpectedly, that Katya is distraught and is threatening to tell him everything, and Kabanicha is watching her every move. Katya enters. Varvara tries to calm her, but her behaviour begins to attract the attention of other people. As Dikoj,Tikhon and Kabanicha arrive, the storm swells. Katya breaks down and confesses that she has
spent every night with another man during Tikhon’s absence. Kabanicha forces her to name him. She does so. Katya rushes off into the storm as Kabanicha tells everyone she knew this would happen.

Scene 2
On the bank of the Volga; twilight
Tikhon and Glasha are searching for Katya. As they leave, Kudryash and Varvara arrive; when Varvara tells Kudryash that Kabanicha locks her in her room, he urges her to run away with him to Moscow, and they go off.

Katya enters. She bitterly regrets her confession, which has brought only ruin to her and humiliation to Boris. Unable to bear her nights alone, she is frightened of the darkness and longs for death, but she is compelled to stay alive to suffer for her sin. She hears distant singing which she thinks is a funeral lament, and, longing for Boris, she calls to him.
He appears and for a few moments they are joyously reunited. He tells her his uncle is sending him away to Siberia and asks about her. Katya says she is tormented by her mother-in-law and beaten by her drunken husband. She tells him to give alms to every beggar he passes on his journey.
After he has gone she pictures her grave, visited by birds and covered with flowers.
She leaps into the Volga. A search party arrives, followed by Kabanicha. Dikoj pulls her body out. Tikhon accuses his mother of killing her but Kabanicha simply thanks everyone present for their kindness.

© Alison Latham

Original recording from The Harewood Collection

  • Robert Thomas
    Vanya Kudryash (a teacher)
  • Sheila Rex
    Glasha (a servant)
  • Owen Brannigan
    Savyol Prokofyevich Dikoy (a merchant)
  • Rowland Jones
    Boris Grigoryevich (his nephew)
  • Helen Hillier
    Feklusha (a pilgrim)
  • Edith Coates
    Marfa Ignatyevna Kabanova (‘Kabanicha’)
  • John Kentish
    Tikhon Ivanich Kabanov (her son)
  • Amy Shuard
    Katya Kabanova (his wife)
  • Marion Studholme
    Varvara (Kabanicha’s foster daughter)
  • Harold Blackburn
    Kuligin (friend of Kudryash)
  • Sadlers Wells Chorus
  • Sadlers Wells Orchestra
  • Rafael Kubelík

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