Opera was something I found mildly intimidating ten or so years ago.
After my Mahler discovery seven years ago, and my epic Wagner revelation in Budapest in 2015, I’m seeking out richer musical experiences. If it also happens to be the case that they’re larger scale, so much the better. More unfamiliar works have the edge for me.
Where opera is concerned it’s something to do with the variety of storytelling techniques employed. Opera Holland Park’s Kat’a Kabanova – a revival of Olivia Fuch’s 2009 production – is a case in point.
It’s not an especially remarkable story. Not especially epic. Married woman has an affair. Racked with guilt she ends up killing herself in a river.
But the way in which that story is told in the music and on stage – with all the variants a multi-disciplined team brings – is what was magical.
A list might help.
1. Janacek’s illustrative compositional technique makes understanding the emotional state of characters a whole lot easier than in other operas (music drama composer Wagner isn’t included in this comparison, obviously). The scene where Kat’a Kabanova’s love for Boris is expressed by the orchestra is a particular case in point – knee trembling.
2. Yannis Thavoris’ set design comprising eight different scenic areas was incredibly involving.
It was also a delight to see on the TV screens outside the auditorium – a fantastic way of making the performance to come a tantalising prospect.
3. Even when they weren’t the focus of the drama, every character told a story on stage just by the way they were standing. That’s powerful direction.
4. Not having everything spelt out explicitly is a good thing. There might be intent in an operatic libretto, but the more ambiguity in terms of meaning suggested by the set, acting, or musical illustration makes for a more immersive experience for the audience.
For example, in Act 1 Scene 2 (remember that I came to this new) Kat’a appears almost mentally disturbed, or at the very least paranoid that the townspeople are staring at her. It’s suggested through acting and nothing else (as far as I can recall). Powerful.
5. It was short. This may seem disingenuous. But short works (when they’re new to you) are far easier to appreciate on a first listen (something that reminds me of my New Music Biennial experience earlier this month.)
The fact that Opera Holland Park has a warm feeling of inclusivity about it minus the pretension that I often experience even in some concert venues, made the whole vibe incredibly accommodating. And that, inevitably, made the entertainment more engaging.
Some specifics. Julia Sporsen (above right) in the lead role depicted a woman, if not on the verge then certainly in the throes of a nervous breakdown, saved only temporarily by having her love for Boris requited. Her mean-spirited mother-in-law Kabanicha played by Anne Mason (above left) was a humourless version of Lady Billows from Britten’s Albert Herring.
Also, a tenor Paul Curievici (below): a dreamily seductive voice.