Kaťa Kabanová at San Carlo, Naples

The Teatro San Carlo in Naples might not seem to be the most obvious venue for a performance of Janáček’s Kaťa Kabanová, but the opera company’s music director Juraj Valčuha is Slovakian, the production by Willy Decker was imported from Hamburg, and the principal singers were all foreign. It was a real treat to have, as the Kabanicha, the famous Czech soprano Gabriela Beňačková, now in her seventies – I last heard her in Prague in 1976 as an ecstatic, youthful Jenufa. Needless to say, she dominated proceedings whenever she was on the stage and the voice was still powerful enough to humiliate and terrorise those around her. At my performance, Barbara Haveman was an impressive Kat’a, with a full-toned lyricism to express her longing for freedom, and yet also a withdrawn, self-questioning pathos as she communicated being entrapped by her fate. As Boris, Magnus Theodor Vigilius was, rightly, no carefree lover and though his bright tenor easily filled the theatre, it was sufficiently moderated to communicate apprehension at his every amorous move. Lena Belkina and Paolo Antognetti portrayed the contrasting couple of Varvara and Kudrjás in an appropriately light-hearted manner, and pertly vocalised their cheerfulness, while, as Tichon, Ludovit Ludha, despite his bullying mother, was able to maintain some dignity, and even gain some sympathy for his obvious attachment to Kat’a.

The production began and ended evocatively with a tableau of silhouette of Kat’a and the Kabanicha facing each other, as the decors draws in on them. And Decker’s exprssionist production caught faithfully the repressive character of the piece, the action taking place in a claustrophobic, enclosed space which opened out for the occasional glimpses of freedom. The outer clothes were all black, so that when the women were able to discard these enabling them in white petticoats to release self-expression, the contrast was that much more vivid. It has to be said, nevertheless, that this dramatic device was repeated so often that it became somewhat clichéd, as did the obsession of Kat’a with a painting representing a bird in flight.

If, in the last resort, the performance was not the emotionally draining experience that one expects with Janáček, this was because the musicians of the San Carlo Orchestra seemed not entirely at home in the composer’s idiom. While for the lyrical passages Valčuha extracted from them some radiant sounds, their playing of the jagged phrases, the driving rhythms, and chromatic chords was insufficiently hard-edged and relentless.