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Recording of the Week, Janáček's Katya Kabanova from Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra

Katya Kabanova - LSO Live, Rattle

Simon Rattle’s series of Janáček recordings from the Barbican continues today with Katya Kabanova, a bleak, taut tragedy centring on a fragile young woman’s attempts to escape an unhappy marriage (and a horrendous mother-in-law) in provincial Russia.

So much of this unsettling, comfortless drama is carried by the orchestra, and Rattle makes this clear from the off in the brooding prelude depicting the Volga where the tormented heroine will eventually escape her misery. The orchestral playing is superbly detailed throughout (it’s no mean feat to capture this in the Barbican’s tricky acoustic, but the sound-engineers have played a blinder); Rattle does a masterful job of conveying both the claustrophobia of the environment and the elemental forces of nature which combine to destroy Katya’s sanity. And there are some flashes of real sensuality along the way: he’s never afraid to lean into the filmic qualities of the score, and there’s a shimmer and sheen to some of the string-playing that rather put me in mind of John Wilson’s Sinfonia of London.

American soprano Amanda Majeski made for a riveting Katya at Covent Garden back in 2019, and if anything she’s even more compelling here: the voice has taken on extra weight and colour in the intervening four years, and she deploys it with the utmost emotional intelligence throughout. Nurture rather than nature, it seems, has made this Katya a shrinking violet: her Act One reveries suggest a self-aware, red-blooded young woman who’s sister-under-the-skin to Giorgetta in Puccini’s Il tabarro (which premiered three years earlier), and there’s an assertiveness to her singing which has you feeling that she might just achieve the happy ending she longs for. It makes her eventual breakdown all the more shattering, and Majeski captures every awful stage with harrowing veracity.

Simon O'Neill & Amanda Majeski
Simon O'Neill & Amanda Majeski

As the object of her conflicted affections, Simon O’Neill turns in one of his best performances in recent years. The raw edginess of his sound (which has attracted mixed reviews in Wagner) works so well in service of a character who’s every bit as insecure and nervy as Katya herself here, and that their second-act love-scene never soars to dizzying heights is a feature rather than a bug; the abiding impression is of two desperate people grasping at straws rather than a genuine grand passion.

The supporting roles are all brilliantly done, not least the secondary couple Varvara (Kabanicha’s foster-daughter) and her schoolteacher lover Kudrjas: the only two native Czech-speakers in the cast, Magdalena Kožená and Ladislav Elgr sound appropriately comfortable in their own skins in a world where virtually everyone else is grappling with feelings of alienation and inarticulacy. There’s an easy fluency and pragmatic warmth to their interactions with Katya and Boris respectively, and their Act Two tryst (entirely devoid of the angst which accompanies Katya and Boris’s simultaneous hook-up) speaks of two bodies and souls entirely in tune with one another as the pair trade phrases from folk-song with carefree sensuality.

Swedish dynamo Katarina Dalayman is on commanding form as mother-in-law-from-hell Kabanicha, berating her son and his wife with such spiteful ferocity that I found myself muttering a few choice imprecations in her direction on several occasions; previously an outstanding Brünnhilde and Isolde, she’s made the transition into dramatic mezzo territory far more convincingly than several of her contemporaries who’ve embarked on the same journey, her snarling chest-register integrated with lacerating high notes which have lost none of their security and power. As her bewildered son Tichon, Andrew Staples is audibly tethered to her apron-strings: his plangent tenor proves an effective foil to O’Neill’s more robust sound, and some telling flashes of passive-aggression make their mark.

Pavlo Hunka had the singularly daunting task of filling an ailing John Tomlinson’s shoes as Boris’s controlling uncle Dikój, but brings the nouveau riche merchant to life in all his monstrous glory: the fire-and-brimstone Act III tirade against progress chills as it should, and the pitch-black comedy of his snivelling drunk soul-bearing to Kabanicha is all the better for not being overplayed.

Orchestrally and vocally, the whole thing is a triumph – and whets the appetite for Rattle’s Jenůfa which is scheduled to appear next spring…

Amanda Majeski (Katya), Katarina Dalayman (Kabanicha), Simon O'Neill (Boris), Andrew Staples (Tichon), Magdalena Kožená (Varvara), Ladislav Elgr (Kudrjas), Pavlo Hunka (Dikój)

London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Sir Simon Rattle

Available Formats: 2 SACDs, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC, Hi-Res+ FLAC