Note: A belated review of the performance on Saturday 9th February 2019.
After last year's disappointing From the House of the Dead I'd hoped the Royal Opera's Janacek cycle was going to pick up with this second installment. Sadly, while it's mostly strong musically, Richard Jones's production left me emotionally cold and, in Act 3, increasingly irritated.
In the title role Amanda Majeski has been highly praised (some near me gave her a standing ovation). She certainly sings much of the role very finely - particularly her near monologue in Act 3. But in other places I would have liked a little more breadth to a sound that sometimes to my ear came across as a little shrill. As an actress she simply didn't make the same impression on me she seems to have made on others, though perhaps that was down to Jones's direction. The rest of the large number of solo roles were solidly taken but nobody consistently held me vocally. In the pit Edward Gardner making his house debut (and the latest candidate being advanced as Pappano's potential successor) shaped this score far better than Wigglesworth did last year's House of the Dead, and drew spirited playing from the Orchestra. But overall the musical qualities were not enough to distract from my irritation with the direction.
Jones's staging is rather confused about where we are. I see from reviews that apparently it's supposed to be the 1970s and possibly Eastern Europe, but the facade of Kat'a's house looked to me as if it might have wandered out of net curtain twitching England. There is no orchard for the lovers to meet in (indeed the problem here is worse than that but we'll get to that shortly), the river is unconvincingly implied as being in the orchestra pit. Huge vaguely light coloured walls surround a large square playing area and failed to create for me any sense of claustrophobia - the sheer amount of space is compounded by the baffling number of doors which swing open at the slightest touch and look like something which has wandered out of a French farce. Periodically Jones shrinks the stage into what is apparently supposed to be the front room of the Kabanov house but this doesn't do much better at creating the necessary mood because through the big bay window you can still see enough of that empty space to know that it's there.
Jones instead attempts to induce claustrophobia by having people constantly wandering up to watch Kat'a, either through the bay window or wherever she happens to be sitting in the empty, or very sparsely furnished, space. The trouble is I could never quite make out what they were doing there - beyond the fact of the director having told them to be. The feeling of a community, of individual watchers with lives, jobs etc. never sufficiently coalesced.
Jones's individual direction of singers rarely convinced me either - gesturing and movement often feel overdone. It isn't that Jones isn't responding to particular moments, but that response lacked subtlety. With Kat'a herself this creates a classic problem where Jones, having started her in a highly desperate state doesn't leave himself enough space for development. Meanwhile, around the principals, there's a familiar and fatal busyness. The chorus run across the stage frequently and distractingly, again failing to help the overall mood. Among the specific moments that failed to convince was Tichon's departure scene where much of the impact is supposed to come from their public row - but I couldn't work out why, given the evident size of the house to judge by that troublesome window, they didn't just go into another room.
Then there are the sections where Jones's direction simply, and unconvincingly, contradicts the text. It isn't so much the absence of the orchard in itself that's the problem but that it's quite impossible to see why Kat'a needs the key at all given that the lovers are apparently conducting their trysts underneath a lamppost directly outside the previously mentioned front window of her paranoid and vindictive mother in law. Not only that but it also suddenly transpires that there are floodlights in the area, conveniently positioned to create shadows of the embracing lovers on one of the huge walls (Lucy Carter's lighting is often irritating - the intention seems to be to force focus on particular characters, but led this viewer to wonder why on earth the home owners had had their living room lighting designed in such a bizarre fashion). If the direction convinced that Kat'a from the beginning wants to be found out this might work - but it doesn't. The problem is compounded by having Kat'a observed coming home on the first night by Kabanicha - which makes a mockery of Varvara's reassurances that she (Kabanicha) can't possibly know what is going on, and of Kat'a's fevered confession in Act 3.
The production is weakest in Act Three. Having spun a bus shelter round multiple times - partly to get it off stage, and partly to make sure we realise that Kat'a is having a breakdown (Antony McDonald's set such as it is is generally overly mobile) the remainder of the post-storm action takes place with only a bench and those tiring to look at walls. We have to accept that maddening circumstance where a character is looking for another on stage and musn't find them, even though this requires assuming the first character is blind. People hover about Kat'a on the bench without it being sufficiently clear whether they are really there or if she is imagining them, and if the former, why (as earlier) they are there. Finally, the chorus has to provide the river which seems to develop sudden tidal tendencies in order to carry Kat'a off the bench.
This is the third staging of this opera I've seen. The best (astonishingly given his usual form) was David Alden's comparatively recent production for ENO. But none of them have convinced me that this opera has a power comparable to Janacek's other major works. The clunkiness of the plot development stood out more here than it did when I saw the Alden production, but I'm not sure it's a wholly solveable problem. Given that Janacek seems to have disappeared from the ENO stage, it's a pity that the new Royal Opera cycle continues to be disappointing. It'd be nice to think things might improve with the next installments but the choice of directors (Claus Guth following his flawed Die Frau with Jenufa and Katie Mitchell (who in my encounters with her thus far usually seems to want an excess of onstage sex and violence) in The Makropulos Case) as so often at the House at present does not inspire confidence.