I went for a walk in the gardens in my lunch break. It was warm enough that I was okay with only a sweater, no coat. Spring bulbs are coming out everywhere and birds are singing, and the air smelled of wintersweet and viburnum blossom, and of pine trees in the sun. Heaven is coming; it’s spring. This has felt like a long winter, what with the successive snowfalls, the colder than average temperatures, and my bl**dy broken wrist. To see the wheel of the year turning is such bliss at these times. It spurs me on to keep working at my physio exercises as the gardening season approaches again.
Last night I had the first dose in a short course of Janacek shots; “Katya Kabanova” at the ENO. Wintry despair to contrast with my own spring cheer. Gorblimey it’s bleak stuff, guvnor.
It’s a bleak story, of toxically unhappy families, adultery, betrayed passion and suicide, and it's a bleak production, of barren open spaces and crowding, bare walls; a solitary lamp-post, a room full of angular shadows, an icon of Christ that is swiftly turned to the wall...
Patricia Racette is Katya, who has married (god knows why) the spineless, mother-fixated, deeply knotted-up Tichon Kabanov, played by the ever-reliable John Graham-Hall, and is now tormented daily by his truly horrible mother (Susan Bickley having a whale of a time being a poisonous old toad). Katya is a good-hearted woman who wants to be a good wife; she is deeply religious, with a mystical sense of connection with God, but she is also passionately emotional and longs for a freedom of experience her small-town life can never give her. Unable to escape her mother-in-law’s endless demands, she tries without success to get some demonstration of her husband’s love, or even some sort of reaction from him. When she meets neighbour Boris, Stuart Skelton’s six-foot hunk of red-haired Australian beefcake, well, what with his magnificent rich tenor and all, she is lost.
Listening to him, I don’t blame her. I don’t normally go for the beefy type, but Mr Skelton could rock my boat any day. What a voice! And he can act (and he’s ginger!). This is the third time I’ve seen him in action; roll on the fourth – it can’t come soon enough. Stuart Skelton is the heroic tenor for me.
There are a secondary pair of lovers in the story, as well; Tichon’s adopted sister Varvara is in love with the amiable local schoolmaster Kudriash; rather like Anne and Simon to Katya and Boris’s Gabriel and Rose, they are saner and more balanced, in both their love affair and their general way of dealing with life. Shortly before the final scene they decide to run away to make a new life together in Moscow. Their directness and good humour in the face of the situation is a touching contrast to the superficially more romantic but utterly self-defeating passion of Katya and Boris. In their music, simple folk-dance melodies and ballad-like lyrics express their healthily cheerful attitude to love. Boris and Katya, however, have fabulous music of great dramatic outbursts, lyrical and wildly emotional, full of wonderful characteristic Janacek sounds I haven’t the technical vocabulary to describe. It tells you everything you need to know about the uncontrollable intensity of their feelings, and the thoughtless passion with which they rush into their affair.
Of course, their love is poignantly brief, doomed from the start. Boris turns out to be a man of straw; Katya loses her marbles, confesses all, loses some more of her marbles, meets Boris one last time and then, flattened by his farewell, drowns herself. So it’s hardly laughs all evening by the Volga; but well-done, as last night’s performance was, it makes for a very powerful, deeply upsetting evening.
On Monday, I’m off for my Janacek booster shot; “The Cunning Little Vixen”. Again, bliss; and it will give an antidote to yesterday’s tormented gloom. It’s as full of green growing life and natural cycles as “Katya Kabanova” is of fractured hearts, denatured relationships, and death.
And so the wheel turns, and the way of things goes as it wills; and we go on.