Prepare to be “poleaxed” by Scottish Opera’s Kátya Kabanová

With two well-received productions of Leoš Janá?ek’s late opera masterpiece, Kátya Kabanová, already doing the rounds at Opera North and London’s Royal Opera House in recent weeks, was Stephen Lawless, who is directing this week’s brand new production for Scottish Opera, ever tempted to check out the opposition? “No, I’ve deliberately kept away from all that,” he says wisely. It’s his favourite 20th century opera, and as such his thoughts on how he should stage it have long been gestating in his mind. Now is not the time to be averting that focus.

Soprano Laura Wilde with Stephen Lawless in rehearsals for Katya Kabanova
Soprano Laura Wilde with Stephen Lawless in rehearsals for Katya Kabanova

His particular fascination lies in Janáček’s personal circumstances during the last ten years of his life, how the 67 year-old married composer’s infatuation with a woman 40 years his junior gave rise to a flurry of brilliant works, and to what extent the nature of this relationship with Kamila Stösslová – there’s no proof he actually consummated it – informs the guilt trip that seals Kátya’s fate in the opera. As Janáček himself wrote: “I know a most wonderful lady. I have her perpetually in my mind. My Kátya grows in her, in Kamila!“

Janáček had already written his earlier opera Osud in 1906, well before he met Stösslová. “The title means ‘fate’, and is about a composer who meets a woman and falls in love with her,” Lawless explains. “Ten years later, Janáček meets Kamila and the works she inspires up to his death in 1928 frequently play with the idea of chance meetings, or predestination. In the last year of his life he wrote a piano piece for Kamila called Just Blind Fate?”

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In the opera, adapted from Alexander Ostrovsky’s play The Storm, Kátya is unhappily married to Tichon. She meets Boris by chance, and passion takes its course, aided by Tichon’s temporary absence from the village on business. After confessing all to her husband, Kátya throws herself into the Volga, unable to face the moral indignation of the local community and the judgemental ferocity of her mother-in-law, the cold-hearted Kabanicha.

“Within the piece, Kátya constantly says ‘this is out of my hands’,” says Lawless. “So what Leslie Travers [stage designer] and I wanted to do was find some way of showing this series of chance encounters, and how things that may seem insignificant at the time have the power to radically alter people’s lives”.

To achieve that, the milieu had to be right. That meant steering away from the convenient 19th century setting suggested by the original Ostrovsky play. Lawless wanted something with more contemporary bite. “I had seen the [2014] Russian film Leviathan, which is set out in the sticks of Russia, and there was something in the griminess and grunge of it that seemed to me to match the earthy quality of Janáček’s music.”

It’s not all misery, Lawless promises. “I think most of the brilliance of Kátya Kabanová is the fact Janáček doesn’t judge. I’ve always said that Dikoy [sung for Scottish Opera by Paul Whelan] is possibly the most unpleasant character in the whole opera, yet his music is humorous as much as anything else. And there’s this curious event, just before Kátya [Laura Wilde] comes on. You’d think Janáček would present her sympathetically at that point, but the chorus actually mock her to this jaunty dance tune. I find that fascinating, the sign of a great composer.”

Lawless has a theory that “strong roles for women are basically what 20th century opera is all about”: women capable of making choices about their lives, unlike those in, say, Puccini or Verdi who just have to take what comes to them.

“Kátya does make a choice, which is to end it,” he explains. “It’s the only choice she’s allowed, but I think that, and its lack of sentimentality, make this opera the strong 20th century piece it is.”

“Janáček doesn’t set poetry, he sets text,” Lawless argues, referring to the absence of conventional arias in a score driven by the composer’s jagged repetitions and brutal realism. “The whole feel of it is like a play with music, and it requires a cast that can really act.”

How does Lawless wish his audiences to react to a production that clearly aims to be hard-hitting?

“I want them to be absolutely harrowed. You can’t not be with this score. It’s relentless, almost like a Bernard Herrmann score for a Hitchcock movie. It sears you. I want everyone to be poleaxed by it.” - Ken Walton

Kátya Kabanová is at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, from 12-16 March and at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, from 21-13 March,